05/24/2012 06:06 EDT | Updated 07/24/2012 05:12 EDT

John Baird To Champion Religious Freedom In U.S. Speech

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Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird will be the main speaker at a Washington, D.C., event celebrating religious freedom Thursday night to promote Canada's planned Office of Religious Freedom.

But the event sponsor's hardline stance on same-sex marriage and homosexuality is at odds with Baird's support for gay rights around the world.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church and three affiliated groups sponsor the annual Religious Liberty Dinner, where previous keynote speakers have included then senator Hillary Clinton, Senator John Kerry and Senator John McCain.

"Seventh-day Adventists believe that marriage is a lifelong union between a man and a woman in loving companionship," the church's website says, "and that the Bible makes no accommodation for homosexual activity or lifestyle. The church does not accept the idea of same-sex marriages nor does it condone homosexual practices or advocacy. The application and practice of these beliefs in cultures that adopt other norms for such relationships is likely to be a focal point of dispute."

The Canadian Embassy in Washington is playing host to the dinner, which attracts people of different faiths and an array of important figures, including ambassadors.

Baird has spoken strongly in favour of gay rights, criticizing other countries for persecuting gays and lesbians.

"The public and personal views of the minister on this are very well-known. He also deeply respects religious freedoms," said Chris Day, a spokesman for Baird.

Canada won't compromise on rights

On Wednesday, Baird released a statement commending the government of Malawi for repealing legislation that criminalized homosexuality.

Last January, Baird gave a speech in London, England, in which he pointed to the abuse of both religious and gay rights in other countries and said Canada won't compromise on basic rights.

"Dozens of Commonwealth countries currently have regressive and punitive laws on the books that criminalize homosexuality," Baird said in his prepared text. Homosexuality is illegal in 41 of 54 Commonwealth member states.

"We will continue to press countries in the Commonwealth to live up to their international obligations, and uphold the basic contract any government should have with its people. To inform, to educate, to be tolerant and accepting."

Baird said Canada will speak out on issues that matter to Canadians, including on how women are treated around the world, the persecution of gays, lesbians, bisexual or transgender people, and targeted attacks on those practising their faith.

"We will not sit in our far-off homes and plead ignorance to crimes against those who seek the same freedoms we enjoy," he said.

Speakers share 'commitment to upholding religious freedom'

Baird also voted against a 2006 motion to reopen the issue of legal same-sex marriage.

The keynote speaker at last year's Religious Liberty Dinner was Suzan Johnson Cook, United States ambassador-at-large for religious freedom.

A news release announcing Baird's speech says that "although speakers have spanned the political spectrum, they have each shared a commitment to upholding religious freedom as a fundamental, universal human right."

The Conservatives campaigned on establishing the office, but have provided few details on it. Asked again on Wednesday, a spokesman for Baird said he had no new information.

Dwayne Leslie, a spokesman for the International Religious Liberty Association, one of the sponsors of the event, says the group desired to have Baird speak because the government is making religious freedom a priority.

"For our group, religious freedom is very important to us, so when another major government says we want to make this a priority, that's why we are interested. So we are awaiting the details like everyone else," Leslie said.

"The basic premise of the protection of religious freedom is something that we absolutely want to stand for."

The annual Religious Liberty Dinner is sponsored by International Religious Liberty Association, which was founded by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the North American Religious Liberty Association, a subsidiary of the IRLA, and Liberty magazine, which is funded by the church.

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