Lawyer skillfully fights for rights of Christians in Canada
September 12, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — In 2016, the Court of Appeal for Ontario called Albertos Polizogopoulos “forceful and eloquent” in his defence of Trinity Western University’s right to run a law school according to their Christian beliefs — a rare and singular shout-out to a lawyer from the bench. Earlier this year, the Catholic Register referred to him as the “bearded and energetic” defender of Christian physicians, as he argued on behalf of the Christian Medical and Dental Society in Canada and asserted their right to freedom of conscience in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. And Don Hutchinson, a lawyer and author of Religious Freedom and the Church in Canada at 150 (1867-2017) called Polizogopoulos “simply one of the country’s best courtroom litigators.”
One reason many Canadian Christians may not have heard of Polizogopoulos is that he is self-deprecating and tends to downplay his many achievements. But it is also due to the fact that Christians in Canada have not yet woken up to the reality that religious freedom, conscience rights, and parental rights in education have been under fierce attack for the better part of the last decade. While many Christian communities slumber on, those rights have been defended through the tireless work of overworked lawyers like Polizogopoulos, who do not receive the recognition they deserve from the Christian communities they serve. Because so few lawyers have the skill set necessary to take on these cases, Polizogopoulos does nearly all of these cases pro-bono or at a reduced fee, at significant personal financial cost.
Polizogopoulos did not enter law school at the University of Ottawa with plans to become, as one newspaper called him, a specialist “in religious freedom litigation.” But in his first year of law school, he met the woman who would become his wife — Faye Sonier, who now serves as executive director and legal counsel for the Canadian Physicians for Life. She was a Christian, and he was not. In order to understand her, he had to understand her faith, and so he set to work exploring Christianity. “That first year was tough,” he told Faith Today in 2013. “While everyone else was reading about the law, I was reading the Bible and studying things like predestination and free will and trying to understand those issues.”
Polizogopoulos’ investigation into Christianity did not culminate in quite the manner that he anticipated: He ended up believing that it was true, and it changed his life. That, in turn, became the catalyst for his entry into the legal fray on behalf of Canada’s Christians. It didn’t take long, either. Polizogopoulos was called to the bar in June 2008, and he was at the Supreme Court representing the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Christian Legal Fellowship only four months later, arguing that freedom of religion extended not only to individuals but to religious groups and communities. The Supreme Court accepted these arguments in their 2009 Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony ruling, setting an essential precedent for future religious liberty cases.
Don Hutchinson, who was then heading up the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Centre for Faith and Public Life, remembers clearly how it all began. “I first met Albertos about a decade ago,” he recalled. “His biggest fan is his wife, Faye, a lawyer who I had hired as my associate at the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. The EFC and the Christian Legal Fellowship were hosting about two dozen lawyers to have a conversation about a vital religious freedom case for religious institutions in Canada. I decided to add some young talent to the usual cast of suspects. One of the requirements for participation was the advance submission of thoughts on the case. Faye encouraged me to give Albertos a chance to submit a paper.”
While Polizogopoulos didn’t end up working on that case, Hutchinson noted that the paper he submitted “presented original, outside-the-box legal thinking that was on point and demonstrated a comprehensive knowledge and application of the relevant law.” When the Hutterian Brethren case came up, Hutchinson “made an arrangement with the managing partner at the firm where Albertos was an associate and is now a partner” to become part of the legal team, and Polizogopoulos ended up sitting next to his wife before the Supreme Court of Canada on October 7, 2008.
Since then, Polizogopoulos has been counsel in 10 Supreme Court of Canada cases, representing the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Christian Higher Education Canada, the Christian Legal Fellowship, the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada, the Association for Reformed Political Action, and the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physician’s Societies. In that case, the Supreme Court ended up quoting his Factum, accepting the argument of his clients that doctors should not be forced to engage in assisted suicide if doing so would violate their religious or moral convictions. It is no exaggeration to note that this is an exceptional track record for someone of only 35 years of age.
Hutchinson agrees. “Few lawyers earn that reputation in Canada, fewer still a decade into their practice of law,” he noted. “Albertos has appeared before trial and appeal courts across the country. … He has been a keen student of the courtroom and the process, quickly building a rapport with senior litigators and judges. Albertos is a litigator who is quick on his feet, and trusts his written argument to make note of questions asked by the court that have not been answered by others or would benefit from clarification, helpfully offering those answers during his presentation.” This has resulted, Hutchinson says, in great respect from clients, lawyers, and judges alike — although Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin often has trouble with his hefty Greek surname, experimenting with various pronunciations during their numerous court interactions.
It's not hard to see why Polizogopoulos builds an easy rapport with lawyers and judges alike — his courtroom demeanour is an exceptionally effective combination of well-researched submissions and unpretentious verbal arguments. In a recent conscience rights case, he handed the judges “a single binder containing more than 1,000 pages of legal references, precedents, and arguments” — and then told the court that his case was not a complicated one. “I’m a simple guy and I’m going to keep it simple,” he said. “(The arguments in this case) are about whether the government can compel people to do things that they think are wrong.” To illustrate why many physicians would view referring for assisted suicide as cooperation with evil, he used a simple example: “If, during the break, someone comes up to me and says I’m looking to buy cocaine and I sell them cocaine, I’ve broken the law. We recognize that. But if I say, ‘I don’t sell cocaine but go see Diana’ and she sells him cocaine, I’ve facilitated that. And that’s a crime.”
It’s remarkable to consider that a man who entered law school as a non-Christian would begin his legal career fighting for the rights of Christians, just as those rights come under heightened threat with the legalization of same-sex “marriage” and assisted suicide and renewed attacks on freedom of speech. There is almost no issue important to Christians where he has not left his mark. Polizogopoulos has defended pro-life students arrested in Ottawa for attempting to set up an abortion victim photography display on their own campus, and represented pro-life blogger Pat Maloney in a case that resulted in an Ontario Superior Court judge striking down a section of Ontario law that banned the release of abortion statistics.
His work on parental rights in education has also been both essential and precedent-setting. Last year, Polizogopoulos successfully defended a private Christian school against a human rights complaint by a same-sex couple that attempted to enroll their child, resulting in a ruling that explicitly noted the school’s legal rights to define its community and the parents they serve. “The school has a well-defined and specific set of creedal beliefs, mission statement, and mandate,” the ruling noted. “The [school’s] evidence was clear that the school requires all parents to share these values if they are considering the school for their family.”
“A judgment against the school would potentially have had negative implications for all provincial Christian schools, Christian camps, para-church ministries, and even for churches,” noted Mark Kennedy of the Association for Christian Schools International. “In light of recent Canadian social trends and media prejudices, we were not confident that the Ontario Human Rights Commission would uphold that relevant section of the Ontario Human Rights Code which allows religious organization to teach their beliefs. But Albertos shares our conviction that the only thing worse than losing a fight for a just cause is not to fight for it, and so he prepared a thorough, well-thought out defence for a tiny school with fewer than 50 students. And he won, the school won, and the Ontario evangelical community won as well.”
In the coming years, Canadian Christians can expect a sustained and relentless attack on all fronts — and many battles are now won and lost in the court of law. Freedom of speech, parental rights in education, conscience rights, and freedom of association are often on the chopping block, and Christian schools and churches and community groups are just starting to notice that they can’t simply keep their heads down and live their lives — because radical activists are taking the fight to them whether they like it or not. We won’t win every one of these fights, but Polizogopoulos believes that it is essential we push back to defend our rights wherever we are challenged — and it is men like him, men with both the will and the skill to fight back, that will be in desperate demand as Canadian Christians begin to wake up.
Don Hutchinson, who quite literally wrote the book on the threats to religious freedom in Canada, puts it this way. “We read stories of ancient England in which royalty select a standard bearer to represent them in jousting competitions,” he said. “The Canadian courtroom is the contemporary jousting arena. Albertos Polizogopoulos has become one of the standard bearers for religious freedom and other interests of Christ’s Church.”
He may often stand alone in front of the courtroom, but he is there on behalf of all of us, our communities, our families, and our children. “His two young children watch on livestream when their daddy appears before the Supreme Court of Canada,” Hutchinson agreed, “not understanding what he’s up to but knowing that at home, he’s the best dad in the world — so he’s worth watching in court.”
All Canadian Christians should be watching a lot closer.