On May 14, a three-judge panel of the Ontario Divisional Court unanimously delivered in Ontario Human Rights Commission v. Christian Horizons another blow to freedom of religion in Canada. This ruling could have a devastating impact on Christian organizations involved in everything from providing disaster relief overseas to operating pregnancy crisis centres here at home.
The complainant in this case, Connie Heintz, was a support worker for Christian Horizons, a charitable organization of Evangelical Christians that operates more than 180 shelters in Ontario for persons with developmental disabilities. Upon joining Christian Horizons in 1995, Heintz signed a contractual agreement to uphold the agency’s “Lifestyle and Morality Standards.” Among other provisions, this statement obligates employees to endorse the Christian faith and forbids fornication, adultery, homosexual sexual relations, and the use of illicit drugs.
In April, 2000, Heintz admitted to her supervisor that she had entered into a lesbian relationship. She was offered counselling to help her comply with her contractual agreement to refrain from homosexual sexual relations, but her relations with co-workers quickly deteriorated.
In June, a colleague accused Heintz of bullying. Following an inquiry, she was issued with a letter of discipline, stating “if you do not change your attitude and improve your performance, we have no alternative but to recommend termination of your employment.”
On Sept. 22, 2000, Heinz resigned her employment. Four months later, she filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, accusing Christian Horizons of having exposed her to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code.
After years of investigation and failed mediation, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario took up the case and in a ruling on April 15, 2008, upheld the complaint. As compensation for Heinz, the Tribunal ordered Christian Horizons to pay her special damages for nearly two years of lost wages and benefits as well as a total of $23,000 in damages for the infliction of mental anguish arising from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and a poisoned work environment. In addition, the Tribunal ordered Christian Horizons to cease and desist from imposing its Lifestyle and Morality Statement as a condition of employment and gave the agency six months to come up with an acceptable plan for bringing its employment policies into compliance with the human rights code.
Upon appeal, the Divisional Court has now upheld the ruling of the Tribunal against Christian Horizons as well as the substantial damages awarded to Heintz.
Prior to enactment of the Ontario Human Rights Code and its counterparts in other provinces, such a travesty of justice could not have occurred in Canada. Any Christian organization then had an undisputed right in law to require all employees to uphold the traditional principles of Judeo-Christian morality including the bans on fornication, adultery and homosexual sexual relations.
Today, that is no longer the case. Notwithstanding the ostensible guarantees of freedom of religion and freedom of association in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the rights and freedoms of Christians are constricted as never before. While the Ontario Divisional Court technically confined its ruling to sexual orientation in Christian Horizons, it held by clear implication that no Christian charity, Catholic or Protestant, which serves more than members of its own faith group can require all employees to uphold Christian beliefs and principles.
There are literally thousands of Christian charities in Canada. They annually raise hundreds of millions of dollars to provide disaster relief and development assistance as well as essential health, educational and social services for many of the poorest, the sickest and the neediest both at home and overseas.
Christian charities typically extend their services without discrimination on the basis of race, creed, colour, religion, sexual orientation or any other extraneous consideration. Many faithful employees of these agencies labour under the most trying circumstances. Typically, they begin and end each day with prayer. Their explicitly Christian identity is essential to the charity’s survival.
Regardless, the Ontario Divisional Court has decreed that Christian charities devoted to assisting the neediest without discrimination no longer have any right under the laws and the Constitution of Canada to require all employees to uphold Christian standards. What a pity.