Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Barbara Hall at the launch of the 65-page "Policy on Competing Human Rights". Photo by Michael Swan

Human rights conflict resolution policy launched

By 
  • May 1, 2012

TORONTO - When religion bumps up against somebody's human rights, the best safeguard of religious freedom is reasoned, calm and respectful dialogue, said Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Barbara Hall said.

More than two years of consultations with religious and other groups has produced a new OHRC position on how to decide cases where the rights of one party conflict with the equally recognized rights of another. The commission's 65-page "Policy on Competing Human Rights" is aimed at encouraging employers, institutions and other groups to resolve conflicts before they wind up in a tribunal hearing or a court room.

"The good news is that we know that every day in Ontario people sit down and work these issues out respectfully," said Hall at the April 26 launch of the policy at York University.

Almost every example of conflicting rights used in the new policy involves religion — the right of religious employers to require sexual morality from employees, the right of people speaking on behalf of their faith to express negative views of homosexual behaviour, the right of Muslim women to testify in court wearing a religious veil that covers their faces.

"(Religion) is something people feel strongly about. They're prepared to stand up and defend it," Hall, a former Toronto mayor, told The Catholic Register.

In part, the centrality of religion to the legal problem of conflicting rights stems from public debate in recent years surrounding gay marriage and other public expressions of sexuality, said Joanne McGarry, executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada .

"You have a very serious conflict between a deeply held belief on the one hand and a recognized right to be free of discrimination on the other. Freedom from religion people have been a little more active in the last decade or so, but I think the main thing is the issue of gay rights and gay marriage in particular. It prompted a very strong reaction from religious believers."

McGarry is quick to say that the believers' position on gay marriage has not necessarily been discriminatory.

"It's just the way they see marriage in a more positive sense," she said.

The new policy doesn't break new ground in recognizing the principle, long established in case law, that all rights are equal and competing claims have to be settled on a case-by-case basis, said McGarry. However the league is happy to see an emphasis on resolving conflicts before they have to be litigated.

"I think we needed something in writing," she said. "Whether it changes very much on the ground is open to question. One of the good things about it is there is a very strong element of encouraging organizations to have policies of their own and to work things out at the first level."

McGarry was one of several Catholics consulted on the new policy.

No rights are absolute, according to the policy.

"Rights are inherently limited by the rights and freedoms of other people," said OHRC senior policy analyst Cherrie Robertson.

In a world of conflict and disagreement our willingness to talk through problems is paramount, said Len Rudner, director of community relations and outreach for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (formerly the Canadian Jewish Congress).

"Laws come into play when human interaction fails," said Rudner. "Most important, the policy encourages us to show dignity and respect to each other."

The new policy "reflects legal principles that are fundamental in our Canadian society," said lawyer Doug Elliott from the Community Advisory Panel of Pride Toronto.

"It takes some of the toxins out of the environment and looks at the issues in a measured, reasoned way."

"These are some of the most difficult issues I know about. It takes great courage to deal with them," said Osgoode Hall law professor Jamie Cameron.

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