A fair and proper ruling

  • May 4, 2011
A recent decision by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal could provide a valuable precedent in future challenges to the religious freedom rights of Catholic organizations.

As reported in The Register April 24, the complaint to the Ontario human rights body was made by a parishioner of a church in Eastern Ontario who disagreed with the placement of a pro-life message on church property. The case between the Chevaliers de Colombe (Knights of Columbus) and Marguerite Dallaire stems from a monument and inscription on the lawn of the Church of St-Jean Baptiste in l’Original, Ont., stating (in French) “Let us pray that all life rests in the hands of God from conception until death.”

Ms. Dallaire complained to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario that “the inscription is offensive and discriminatory because it denounces, victimizes and excludes women.” Her application, and the tribunal’s decision, make it clear that she disagrees with the Church on the matter of abortion.

In a decision by Adjudicator Michelle Flaherty, the tribunal stated that the message does not violate the Ontario Human Rights Code because it is an expression of religious belief, not a matter of provision of facilities or services.

The Catholic Civil Rights League has been involved with many human rights cases involving Church jurisdiction, and this decision is particularly significant, and welcome, in that it explicitly recognizes the filing as an attempt to use the human rights process to challenge the teachings of the Church. The written decision makes clear this is not an appropriate use of the human rights code.

“It is clear to me that the applicant is attempting to use the (code) as a vehicle to challenge not only the monument but also the Catholic Church’s belief system and teachings,” wrote Flaherty.

“Freedom of religion must not be interpreted in a way that voids the positive dimension of the freedom (the right to hold beliefs, practice and disseminate them) of any meaning,” the April 5 decision stated. It went on to say the content of the message is a matter of religious belief and not the business of the provincial human rights body.  

“The tribunal has no jurisdiction to scrutinize the content of religious teaching and beliefs, particularly where these are conveyed on the premises of a religious organization.”

This does not mean religious organizations are not subject to human rights codes on some matters, as other cases have shown, but the issue would have to involve the provision of services or use of space normally available to the public.

Similar efforts have been made in the past to use the rights code as a vehicle for challenging denominational rights. Two of the most recent include a non-Catholic in Ontario attempting to get a teaching job in Catholic elementary schools, and an adult altar server in Cobourg, Ont., in the Peterborough diocese, challenging a bishop’s right to assign duties as he sees fit. The latter was addressed through a mediation process that could probably have occurred without the intervention of a state body. The former was dismissed on procedural grounds (the applicant did not file the complaint within the required time period) so never really addressed the right of Catholic school boards to ask for pastoral references.

The incursion of human rights tribunals into free speech and freedom of religion is well-known due to challenges to Catholic Insight, Macleans and Western Standard magazines, and some Calgary Sun columns by Bishop Fred Henry. However, applications involving — in essence — the right of the Church and its organizations to govern their own affairs are just as serious and involve charter rights at least equally.

With the ongoing debate of how to balance equity policies in Catholic schools with Catholic teaching on sexual morality, also ably reported in this newspaper, the potential for a blurring of the lines between Church and state authority is real.

Although this decision does not involve a high profile case, it should help send a signal that human rights codes are meant to protect people from discrimination in the workplace and in the provision of goods and services. They are not meant to be a tool to attack religious rights and freedoms.

(McGarry is executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League.)

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