Evangelical med students and pro-life physicians across Canada celebrated with Rafael Zaki when the Coptic Christian won a Manitoba court appeal that quashed his university’s decision to expel him over Facebook posts.
But that doesn’t mean they’re ready to start broadcasting their own personal beliefs about abortion, euthanasia, or the value of human life on social media.
“I think it’s fair to say that students are not comfortable disclosing their faith perspective,” said Larry Worthen, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Association of Canada (CMDA).
The CMDA regularly hears from students concerned about their rights to hold minority opinions on abortion, which is legal in all stages of pregnancy, and medical assistance in dying, which the Canadian government recently expanded to sick and disabled people without terminal illnesses. Though few students are actually expelled, several every year come into conflict with school administrators because of their faith.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the “fundamental freedom” of conscience and religion, as well as “thought, belief, opinion, and expression,” but that didn’t keep the University of Manitoba from expelling Zaki over what he shared on Facebook.
Worthen describes Zaki’s situation as “extreme” but says it does raise concerns.
“This seems to us to be quite disturbing and appalling in this day and age, that the Charter rights that were guaranteed under our national constitution were not considered by the medical school in the processing of this concern and issue,” he said.
Zaki, who emigrated to Canada from Egypt as a child, enrolled in the University of Manitoba Max Rady College of Medicine in 2018 with hopes of becoming a doctor. “Through medical training I hope to serve the sick and vulnerable,” he once wrote, “and increase access to quality care and resources for all.”
While still in his first year, however, he posted several controversial things on his private Facebook page. In February, he shared links to American pro-gun videos. Then he shared a 28-page essay he had written for a Sunday school class explaining why he thinks abortion is wrong.
Zaki equated abortion with slavery, forced labor, the Holocaust, and eugenics. He also argued that abortion violates the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Canadian Constitution, and his own personal faith as a Coptic Christian.
He called the post a gift for his fellow students. Eighteen of them complained anonymously to the university administration. Zaki met with administrators who accused him of creating an unsafe learning environment. He admitted the posts were unprofessional and agreed to write a personal apology, but the apology was not deemed acceptable.
He wrote another and another, but they were also insufficient, according to the University of Manitoba. After five apologies were not accepted, Zaki was expelled in August 2019.
“He would not and could not change his deeply held religious pro-life beliefs,” Justice Kenneth Champagne wrote in the ruling.
Zaki appealed the university’s decision, arguing his statements were private and protected by the Charter. In an 88-paragraph decision denying his appeal, the university said the statements were public. They directly addressed other students and mentioned the university, at one point joking about becoming a “PR nightmare” for the med school.
The university decided not to consider the religious liberty arguments, however. It said it could not consider the issue because it did not have the necessary jurisdiction to evaluate whether an expulsion over a pro-gun or pro-life Facebook post violated Zaki’s fundamental freedoms.
Champagne rejected that argument and said the expulsion was unacceptable because the university didn’t consider Zaki’s religious rights in the process.
He cited a 1985 court precedent, which found that “a truly free society is one which can accommodate a wide variety of beliefs,” and “the Charter safeguards religious minorities from the threat of ‘the tyranny of the majority.’”
Zaki’s lawyer, Carol Crossman, told CT this is a “landmark decision” because it says the Charter applies to students facing expulsion. What it means for Zaki remains to be seen. He has reenrolled at the school, but the school has the right to restart the expulsion process.
“The story’s not over for Mr. Zaki,” Crossman said. “We hope that going forward that his rights will be respected.”