TORONTO, April 26, 2011 (CCRL) – A pro-life message on church property in Eastern Ontario does not violate the Ontario Human Rights Code, according to a recent ruling by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (HRTO).

In a decision by Adjudicator Michelle Flaherty, the tribunal stated that the message does not violate the Ontario Human Rights Code because it is an expression of religious belief, not a matter of provision of facilties or services.

The League finds the decision particularly significant, and welcome, in that it recognizes the filing as an attempt to use the HRTO process to challenge the teachings of the Church. The written decision makes clear that this is not an appropriate use of the Ontario Human Rights Code.

“It is clear to me that the applicant is attempting to use the (Ontario Human Rights Code) as a vehicle to challenge not only the monument but also the Catholic Church’s belief system and teachings. In my view, this is not an appropriate use of the code,” wrote Ms. Flaherty.

“Freedom of religion must not be interpreted in a way that voids the positive dimension of the freedom (the right to hold beliefs, practice and disseminate them) of any meaning,” the decision stated.

The case between the Chevaliers de Colombe (Knights of Columbus) and Marguerite Dallaire stems from a monument and inscription on the lawn of the Church of St-Jean Baptiste in l’Original, Ont. stating (in French) “Let us pray that all life rests in the hands of God from conception until death.”

Ms. Dallaire, a parishioner, complained to the HRTO that “the inscription is offensive and discriminatory because it denounces, victimizes and excludes women.” Her application, and the HRTO decision, make it clear that she disagrees with the Church on the matter of abortion.

In the April 5 decision, the HRTO said the content of the message is a matter of religious belief and not the business of the provincial human rights body.  

“The tribunal has no jurisdiction to scrutinize the content of religious teaching and beliefs, particularly where these are conveyed on the premises of a religious organization,” she wrote.

The inscription, which faces the church and can’t be read from the street, doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Tribunal because it is neither a service nor a facility as defined by Ontario’s Human Rights Code.

This does not mean that religious organizations are not subject to the code on some matters, she added, but the issue would have to involve the provision of services or use of space normally available to the public.

“It may be that a religious organization that rents a hall or building is providing a facility for the purposes of section 1 of the Code.  Similarly, religious “facilities” that are not accessible to a person with a disability might be found to fall within the purview of the Code.  However, these are not issues I need decide in the matter before me.

“…Here, the issue is the content and expression of a religious belief, which is not a service or facility within the meaning of the Code.  The fact that some of a religious organization’s activities are not “services” or “facilities” for the purposes of the Code does not, however, mean that other aspects of that organization’s activities will be immune from scrutiny under the Code.”

Similar efforts have been made in the past – such as by a non-Catholic attempting to get a teaching job in Catholic elementary schools, or by a Church volunteer challenging a bishop’s right to assign duties as he sees fit – to use the Ontario Human Rights Code as a vehicle to challenge the right of the Church, and organizations closely tied to it, to manage their affairs in accordance with their traditional denominational rights.  

The League hopes this decision will send a signal that human rights codes are meant to protect people from discrimination in the workplace and in the provision of goods and services. They are not meant to be a tool to attack religious belief or teaching.

– The complete decision.