Mike Mastromatteo
The Interim

Pro-life and pro-family groups are not optimistic that a forthcoming decision from the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal will advance the cause of freedom of religion in Canada.

At issue is the rental of a Knights of Columbus hall in Port Coquitlam, B.C. for a lesbian wedding reception. The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic men’s fraternal organization.

The lesbian couple attempted to rent the hall back in 2003, and while the local Knights initially agreed to the rental, they cancelled the contract when they discovered the reception planned would be a same-sex “wedding.”

The lesbian couple and their lawyer argue that it is discriminatory to offer a facility to the public and then say a particular group can’t use it.

According to officials with the local Knights council, the couple who first approached the Knights about renting the hall made no indication that it would be a same-sex “wedding” reception, and that they in particular were the “marriage” partners.

As a Catholic church-affiliated organization, the use of the hall for a same-sex wedding reception is at odds with a basic tenet of church teaching.

The Knights subsequently offered to reimburse the couple for their invitations and to pay for their use of another hall facility. The offer was contingent on the couple agreeing not to pursue a human rights complaint, but the couple rejected that offer and proceeded with their complaint to the human rights tribunal.

George Macintosh, a Vancouver attorney who represented Knights of Columbus council 9125 before the tribunal, told The Interim his submission attempted to show the clear link between the Knights and the Catholic church, and their opposition to the celebration of same-sex “marriage.”

“I expect if the Knights are not successful at the human rights tribunal, that I will have instructions to appeal,” Macintosh said. “Any financial penalty, which would be ordered by the tribunal if the complainants succeed, is not expected to be large, but in any event, this is more a matter of principle. The principle is the constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion.”

In concluding his argument before the tribunal, Macintosh said the Knights had a bona fide and reasonable justification for the denial of the hall for this use. The denial was reasonably necessary to maintain the respondents’ relationship with the Catholic church, and to protect the respondents’ freedom of religion.

Although the human rights tribunal took up the case in late January, a final decision is not expected for several weeks.

Meanwhile, other groups are naturally curious about the outcome of the case. Joanne McGarry, an official with the Catholic Civil Rights League, said this type of human rights case is likely to the first of many to come. “We support the right of the Knights, and indeed of all church groups, to refuse the use of their facilities for purposes not in keeping with church teachings. And decisions of this kind do tend to go against the church, but we won’t know that in this particular case until the ruling is handed down.”

In a statement issued in late January, CCRL president Phil Horgan said draft legislation now before Parliament on the same-sex “marriage” issue invites these kinds of human rights challenges. “The league has said all along that the protection afforded religious groups in the proposed marriage legislation is completely inadequate, because it deals with only one element of a group’s religious rights. Under the government’s draft legislation, religious officials would retain the right to refuse to perform marriage ceremonies not in keeping with their beliefs, but no protection is provided to other individuals or a religious group’s control over the general use of its property.”

Horgan went on to suggest that the rental of facilities owned by church groups appears to be “an obvious target” for groups pushing the gay rights agenda, because halls are frequently made available for non-religious purposes. “But that does not, and should not, mean that the owner cannot refuse rental requests on religious grounds,” he said.

“Regardless of how this particular case is settled, one can be sure there will be more to come, not only in the area of hall rentals, but also in such areas as the content of family life education in publicly funded schools, marriage preparation and counselling programs.

“Freedom of choice for religious groups is being whittled away at every opportunity. We urge human rights tribunals – and governments – to respect freedom of religion and freedom of conscience in the cases brought before them.”