Interim Staff

Pro-family supporters are treating with some ambivalence the decision of a British Columbia human rights tribunal. The ruling upheld the right of church-affiliated groups to deny access to their facilities for purposes opposed to their core religious beliefs.

The British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal ruled Nov. 30 that a Port Coquitlam Knights of Columbus council could discriminate against a lesbian couple who attempted to book the Knights’ hall for a “wedding” reception in 2003.

Although the hall had been available for non-church functions, the Knights of Columbus and officials with the Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver argued that hosting a same-sex “wedding” reception was an inappropriate use of church-affiliated property.

Citing the Canadian Charter’s freedom of religion guarantees, the human rights tribunal ruled that as a Catholic church-affiliated organization, the Knights could not be compelled to rent their facilities for events, such as same-sex “wedding” receptions, that conflict with church teachings on the sanctity of traditional marriage.

However, the tribunal also ruled that the Knights’ handling of the situation violated the lesbian couple’s “dignity, feelings and (sense of) self-respect” and as such, ordered the Knights to pay damages of $1,000 each (plus incidental expenses) to the couple.

The Knights had initially agreed to rent the hall to the couple, but cancelled the contract upon learning that the hall would be used for a same-sex “wedding” reception. The Knights apologized for the misunderstanding, offered to help the couple find an alternate venue and agreed to reimburse them for expenses incurred booking the new hall and re-mailing wedding invitations.

The Catholic men’s fraternal organization also asked that the couple sign a legal waiver releasing the Knights from further obligations. The couple refused these efforts and proceeded to lodge a complaint with the human rights tribunal, despite having succeeded in finding another reception hall within 24 hours of discovering that the Knights had cancelled the original rental contract.

Although the lesbian couple testified before the human rights tribunal that they were unaware the Knights of Columbus are affiliated with the Catholic church – and would not have attempted to book the hall had they known – some pro-life and KofC supporters in the Vancouver area suggest that the couple’s appeal to the human rights tribunal was motivated more to advance the gay rights agenda than to find redress for a booking mixup.

David Hauser, a member of Port Coquitlam Knights of Columbus Council 9125 and a former manager of the Knights’ hall, said he believes the lesbian couple was fully aware of the Knights’ affiliation with the Catholic church and of the Church’s opposition to same-sex “marriage.”

Hauser and Tracy Smith, one of the two complainants, were co-workers in a Costco store warehouse in Port Coquitlam. Hauser is certain Smith and her partner understood the Knights of Columbus-Catholic church connection prior to booking the Knights’ hall for their “wedding” reception.

“There is no way they could not have known (about the relationship),” Hauser told The Interim Dec. 13. “These weren’t a couple of young people who made a simple mistake. To me, the plan to book a Catholic hall and then lodge a human rights complaint was just another attempt to gain acceptance for the gay rights agenda.”

Hauser has since been dismissed from his position with Costco and is now self-employed in the home maintenance business.

The LifeSite News service reported Dec. 5 that it would be practically impossible for anyone visiting the Knights of Columbus hall and adjoining property not to be aware that it had some connection to the Catholic church. The hall is situated near a Catholic parish and school and a variety of Catholic symbols and images are highly visible inside and out.

However, Vancouver lawyer barbara findlay, who represented the lesbian couple before the human rights tribunal, denied suggestions that the lesbian couple deliberately targeted a church-affiliated organization to hold a same-sex “wedding” reception in an effort to embarrass the Catholic church over its opposition to homosexual unions.

“The clients testified that if they had known the hall was owned by Catholics, they would never have picked it, because they didn’t want anything to ruin their wedding day,” findlay told The Interim. “They pursued a human rights complaint so that no other gay or lesbian couple would be faced with the humiliation they experienced when they had to tell all of their guests what had happened. They had already sent their invitations out when the Knights cancelled their contract.”

findlay (who spells her name with lower case initials) also said that while her clients are satisfied with the tribunal’s decision, they plan to appeal the ruling in the B.C. courts.

“We plan to make an application for judicial review to the B.C. Supreme Court. That is a particular kind of appeal, relevant to decisions of tribunals,” findlay said.

She added that while the “nominal” financial penalty imposed on the Knights of Columbus is a partial victory for her clients, the decision still suggests that Catholic and other faith-based organizations can practise “polite discrimination” against homosexuals.

George Macintosh, a Vancouver attorney representing the Knights of Columbus before the tribunal, told The Interim that as of Dec. 9, the Knights have no plans to appeal the ruling.

“The principle finding was that the Knights are permitted to refuse the celebration of a same-sex ‘marriage’ at the hall and that was the principle issue in the dispute,” Macintosh said.

Macintosh rejected suggestions that the Knights failed to address the complainants’ concerns once the hall rental contract had been cancelled. “I disagree with the subsequent findings that the Knights did not adequately accommodate the complainants, because the Knights, as soon as they learned that the ‘wedding’ reception was for a same-sex ‘marriage,’ telephoned the complainants, apologized to them and offered to refund the deposit placed on the hall rental. The next morning, the complainants found an alternative site, I believe, in their first phone call to another place. The complainants then wrote a demand letter to the Knights asking also that the Knights pay for the cost of printing new invitations, which the Knights agreed to in exchange for a standard release being signed. The complainants would not sign the release and communications broke down after that.”

Macintosh suggested that despite the financial penalty imposed on the Knights of Columbus, the ruling is generally positive for religious organizations, especially as they develop policies about public use of church-owned or affiliated property.

Joanne McGarry, executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, said that while the league is relieved the tribunal upheld the right of church groups to deny access of their facilities for purposes at odds with their core beliefs, there are still some troubling aspects to the decision.

“The league welcomes the ruling, in that it recognizes the right to freedom of religion inherent in the cancellation, but we remain concerned that courts and tribunals have so much latitude in determining how, and even if, the right can be exercised,” McGarry said. “Of perhaps greater concern is the tribunal requiring payment for affronts to dignity and self-respect. These are very subjective feelings, to which either side might make a claim in cases of this kind.”

McGarry reiterated the CCRL’s view that religiously affiliated organizations be extra vigilant in responding to requests for use of their facilities for what might be termed atypical purposes.

“We fully expect that there will be more cases of this kind,” she told The Interim. “The commercial use of church-owned property will prove to be an especially sensitive area, since these facilities have traditionally been made available for not-strictly-religious purposes. The league recommends that organizations who rent their premises to outside groups include a clause in their contracts stating that uses opposed to church teaching will not be permitted.”