Evangelical Christian agency ordered to abandon behaviour code

  • May 5, 2008

{mosimage}OTTAWA - The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has ordered an evangelical Christian charity to rescind its morality code and require employees to undergo anti-discrimination training.

It also ordered Christian Horizons to pay $23,000 to a former employee who engaged in a lesbian relationship after signing the code. That award includes $10,000 for general damages and $5,000 for mental anguish due to a poisoned work environment.

Christian Horizons is an evangelical Christian charity based in Kitchener, Ont., that serves about 1,400 developmentally disabled people. It helps them live in the community in Christian homes or apartments under the supervision of staff.

The organization required its employees to sign a Lifestyle and Morality Statement that prohibited homosexual activity, viewing pornography and other activities deemed contrary to the living out of the Christian faith.

“The decision is inconsistent with a proper understanding of freedom of religion under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said constitutional lawyer Peter Lauwers. “It really challenges social welfare organizations that are run by Christian and other faith groups on the basis of whether they will continue to provide the services they do.”

Lauwers pointed out most Christian organizations serve out of a sense of vocation and fidelity to moral standards. He wondered how many people who contribute time and money to these organizations will continue to do so if they no longer reflect their authentic religious convictions.

“Christian service of others is an integral extension of the Evangelical Christian faith,” wrote the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s general legal counsel Don Hutchinson in an April 29 National Post commentary article. “The attempt to sever that link is to misunderstand the nature of religion and undermine the very ethos that undergirds Christian Horizons' expression of care and compassion for others.”

The Catholic Civil Rights League has raised concerns as well. The complainant, Connie Heintz, 39, had signed the statement when she first started working for the charity because, as a Mennonite, she agreed with its principles. Then she underwent a crisis of faith and revealed she had become involved in a lesbian relationship.

ÒThe decision challenges the value of employment and organizational contracts, if a clearly worded agreement signed voluntarily can so summarily be made non-binding,” said Catholic Civil Rights League executive director Joanne McGarry in an April 29 statement. “The employee in this instance signed the undertaking as a member of the denomination, understood its contents, yet wanted it disregarded later.”

McGarry pointed out that not only employers, but independent schools, residences, clubs and co-operative housing also require people to sign pledges agreeing to refrain from certain legal activities.

“In the League’s view, this decision could make all such contracts open to re-interpretation upon request.”

Christian Horizons also faced sanctions for asking Heintz to consider Christian counselling to restore her to her previous faith.

The tribunal ruled “the attempt of ‘restoration’ for persons who are gay or lesbian is profoundly disrespectful and oppressive."

Though witnesses testified the beliefs concerning human sexuality were fundamental evangelical Christian beliefs, the tribunal said, “Employers in Ontario are not allowed to permit, let alone foster work environments in which these attitudes are acted out.”

Though the the tribunal recognized that religious organizations could restrict hiring for ministries that served members of their own faith group, Christian Horizons serves disabled people of all faith backgrounds. It depends on $75 million in government funding, and therefore must obey the Ontario Human Rights Code.

“Christian Horizon’s policy is discriminatory,” the ruling said. “While some elements of Canadian society may continue to debate whether gays and lesbians should be treated equally and entitled to equal rights and opportunity, from a legal perspective that debate has ended.

“Its policy, based on the belief that homosexuality was unnatural and immoral, engendered fear, ignorance, hatred and suspicion,” the ruling said.

The tribunal gave Christian Horizons four months to comply with its ruling. Christian Horizons has 30 days to appeal the April 15 decision.

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