Catholic public servant loses court battle over union dues

  • April 17, 2007
OTTAWA - A Catholic public servant has lost her court battle to have her union dues diverted to charity.
Susan Comstock, a devout Catholic, had asked her employer, the Treasury Board of Canada, to divert her approximately $800 a year Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) dues because the union had taken a political stand in favour of same-sex marriage in the 2004 election, in violation of her religious beliefs and her conscience.

She also objected to PSAC's anti-homophobia and anti-heterosexism policy. Her employer refused her request. When the Canadian Human Rights Commission dismissed her case after an investigation, she appealed.  In a decision released March 30, the federal court judge upheld the Canadian Human Rights dismissal.

"Disappointment is my response, because it just seemed that the judge ignored many of the arguments that we tried to present," said Comstock of Toronto. "He didn't seem to be interested in what the meaning of what the Marriage for Civil Purposes Act (Bill C-38) had to say about the obligations of Christians being respected."

"The Canadian Human Rights Commission, now supported by a judge, is saying that the right to dissent does not include the diversion of union dues, at least for Catholics," said Catholic Civil Rights League President Phil Horgan. The collective agreement allows for some religious groups that have doctrinal objections to trade union membership to divert their dues to charity.  The government had argued that the Catholic Church supports the rights of workers to unionize.

Comstock said, however, that the church's positions on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion are "common knowledge, not something you have to prove," even though she was required to do so in court.

"The church has been steadfast on abortion and sexuality. It's the union that has lost its way and waded into areas of social policy," she said, noting that its anti-heterosexism policy "has actually targeted people such as myself to be re-educated, using my own money."

Horgan, who represented Comstock, said an amendment to the same-sex marriage law indicated that "no person shall be deprived of any benefit or subject to any obligation or sanction under any law of the Parliament of Canada by reason of their exercise in respect of marriage between persons of the same sex."

Horgan said the judge did not address the core of the argument, only whether the Human Rights Commission had proceeded fairly.

PSAC sees the decision as a victory.

"This is important because it demonstrates that your right to practice your religion is not impaired by paying dues to a union whose views you do not share," Andrew Raven, Ottawa-based lawyer for PSAC, told the March 31 Ottawa Citizen. "This was an attack on the right of the union to have a policy that supported the rights of gays and lesbians."

Comstock said the court decision "basically gives the union carte blanche to do whatever it wants without people being able to object to it."

"There's an element of fear," Comstock said, noting that she experienced a threat of a "work force adjustment" that would have given her a year to find alternative employment before her job was terminated. She said she "complained through political channels and senior management changed its minds."

Comstock has growing support among other Catholics in PSAC.  Dave MacDonald, president of Ottawa-based PSAC Local 70160, said he hopes Comstock appeals the decision.

"I hope as other people become aware of the injustices that are occurring within the union that they will stand up for their rights," he said.

Comstock said she would like to appeal, but she cannot afford the financial risk herself. An appeal has not yet been ruled out if support comes forward. Horgan said there is also a possibility that subsequent collective agreements can be more sensitive to the conscience rights of government employees.

"This comes at some substantial costs, not only financial but emotional," Horgan said, noting that Comstock was "one person against a very well-financed union and the federal government, both of whom opposed Susan's modest wish to divert her union does to a charity of her choice, a remedy that's available to other religious groups but not to Catholics."

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