TORONTO, Ont. April 28, 2008 – A recent decision of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal raises significant concerns about the freedom of religious organizations to require employees to pledge to adhere to tenets of a religious faith.
The Tribunal (OHRT) recently ordered Christian Horizons, which operates homes province-wide for the developmentally disabled, to abandon its practice of requiring employees to sign a Doctrinal and Lifestyle Morality Statement as part of their employment contract. The agreement forbids homosexual relationships, as well as adultery, pre-marital sex, “endorsement” of tobacco and alcohol, and use of pornography, among other things.
The order was part of the tribunal’s decision in Heintz and OHRC vs. Christian Horizons, in which former employee Christina Heintz alleged discrimination because of her treatment after she became known to be in a lesbian relationship and ultimately left the organization, claiming she was pressured to do so. In addition to back pay and damages to Ms. Heintz, the decision also requires the organization to adopt non-discrimination policies in keeping with the Ontario Human Rights Code. Significantly, the decision specifies that any future contract cannot require behaviour consistent with Christian teaching on homosexual conduct or lifestyle.
Ms. Heintz signed the agreement when she joined the organization, in 1995, but the OHRT decision said the contract is discriminatory and therefore unenforceable unless it addressed bona fide job requirements, which in its view, it did not. In the absence of that one circumstance, the policy violates workers’ basic rights, ruled Michael Gottheil, chair of the tribunal.
Christian Horizons, founded and operated by evangelical Christians, is the largest community living service provider in Ontario, and is funded almost entirely by the province, receiving about $75 million each year. It operates more than 180 residential homes for people with developmental disabilities and provides support and services to about 1,400 people. All staff have been expected to sign the Doctrinal and Lifestyle Morality Statement.
The decision addresses significant questions for religious organizations that serve the general public. While not inconsistent with previous decisions on the employment rights of faith-based organizations, some of its discussion and analysis touches directly on religious doctrine, rather than on the stricter question of faith as a bona fide job requirement. (In fact, in the Anselem decision, which is cited by the tribunal, the Supreme Court stated that matters of compliance with religious doctrine are not for the court to decide.)
Both case law and standard day-to-day practice suggest that employment law in this area is not “one size fits all,” but rather is guided by a perception of whether membership in the faith can be considered an occupational requirement. Testimony in this hearing notes that medical and social service organizations operated by other faiths, including Salvation Army and Catholic groups, do not require that every job be filled by an adherent, or that staff agree to employment conditions based on religion. At the same time, the practice is consistent with the human rights code when membership in the faith group can be considered a job requirement, as has been ruled for teachers in faith-based schools.
Nevertheless, the decision challenges the value of employment and organizational contracts, if a clearly-worded agreement signed voluntarily can so summarily be made non-binding. The employee in this instance signed the undertaking as a member of the denomination, understood its contents, yet wanted it disregarded later. Many organizations require participants to sign pledges agreeing to refrain from activities that are legal. In fact, such agreements are fairly common not only in employment settings, but also in matters such as admission to independent schools, residences, clubs and co-operative housing. In the League’s view, this decision could make all such contracts open to re-interpretation upon request.
Christian Horizons has 30 days to appeal the decision, which was issued April 15.
© Catholic Civil Rights League, April 28, 2008