TORONTO, May 26, 2010 (CCRL) – The Catholic Civil Rights League is pleased that the Ontario Superior Court has affirmed the right of Christian Horizons group homes to hire staff who meet faith requirements, but noted that the ruling still upheld some interference in that right by upholding a complaint of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
In a broader context, the League remains concerned that a human rights tribunal has been allowed to interpret religious precepts, in this case as they may have applied to hiring and firing requirements of a Christian charity.
Christian Horizons, founded and operated by evangelical Christians, is the largest community living service 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. Prior to this case, all employees were required to sign an employee contract stating they would refrain from a variety of behaviour, including homosexual conduct. (League press releases, April 28, 2008)
The appeal stems from an OHRT decision in 2008 that found Christian Horizons had discriminated against a former employee by terminating her employment after it became known, several years after she had twice signed a Lifestyle and Morality (L & M) statement, that she was living in a lesbian relationship. The L & M Statement stipulated that the employee reject conduct including: extra-marital sexual relationships (adultery); pre-marital sexual relationships (fornication); reading or viewing pornographic material; homosexual relationships; theft, fraud; physical aggression; abusive behaviour; sexual assault/harassment; lying and deceit; and the use of illicit drugs, as being incompatible with effective Christian counselling ideals, standards and values.
In a decision issued May 14, the court ruled that the exemption provision in the Ontario Human Rights Code that permits certain charities, including religious charities, to selectively hire employees who share the same beliefs, was applicable in this case.
“. . . it is clear that Christian Horizons operates its group homes for religious reasons – in order to carry out a Christian mission, imitating the work of Jesus Christ by serving those in need. It would not be doing this work of assisting people with disabilities in a Christian home environment but for the religious calling of those involved … Thus, the Tribunal accepted that, from the perspective of the founders of Christian Horizons, its members and employees, the organization saw itself as an Evangelical Christian organization.
“The charitable work it undertook for persons with developmental disabilities was undertaken as a religious activity through which those involved could live out their Christian faith and carry out their Christian ministry to serve people with developmental disabilities. Christian Horizons is, in fact, primarily engaged in serving the interests of persons identified by their creed, with resultant benefits to individuals with developmental disabilities who live in their group homes and the families of those residents.”
The court also found, however, that the OHRT was correct that the employee had been discriminated against unjustly, since the employer had failed to establish that compliance with the entirety of the Lifestyle and Morality Statement was a bona fide occupational requirement for its support workers.
Said League President Philip Horgan, “The court ruled that faith-based organizations have the right to insist upon denominational requirements in hiring staff. However, the court then ruled that some faith directives, such as certain lifestyle commitments made by such employees, could not be enforced in the absence of objectively based criteria for the job. The court reduced the need for compliance with a particular lifestyle requirement (refraining from homosexual activity), as being outside the demands of bona fide occupational requirements of the support workers employed by Christian Horizons.
“Significantly, other lifestyle activities (refraining from stealing, abusive behaviour, harassment, lying or deceit) were recognized by the court as remaining applicable to these employees. (The court did not make a specific ruling on the other sex-related restrictions from the L & M Statement, or the stipulation that workers refrain from accessing pornography. Those issues were not before the court in this case.)
“In effect, this faith-based group’s listing of what it considered inappropriate, or dare we say “sinful”, was now required to be modified by human rights law as it applied to its workers. The difficulty with this approach, at least as it applies to faith-based groups, is that society’s views, or more accurately the views of your local human rights commission, may be at odds with what a particular faith teaches or proposes for its adherents.
“Faith-based groups will be obliged to consider how various of its job functions will in future be subject to inquiry by human rights commissions, who have shown little restraint in intruding into precepts of religion as they apply in the workplace.”
The court struck down the Tribunal’s direction that Christian Horizons review all of its employment policies in consultation with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The court upheld one part of the Tribunal’s decision regarding the complainant’s lifestyle grievance. Since the original filing, the employer has ceased requiring staff to sign the Lifestyle and Morality Statement. However, Christian Horizons will still be required to provide staff training encouraging that targets discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Decision of the Ontario Superior Court, May 14, 2010