Believe it or not
Ontario’s human rights commission has put the spotlight on creed as a protected ground, but what beliefs deserve protection?
Feb 17, 2016
By Jeffrey R. Smith
Have you faced discrimination because of your creed? Do you have a creed? Do you know what a creed is?
Creed is a protected ground under human rights legislation, meaning employers and others can’t discriminate against someone because of her creed. However, it generally hasn’t been defined specifically in human rights legislation.
Back in December, the Ontario Human Rights Commission made an effort to try to clarify things in that province. It released an updated policy on preventing discrimination based on creed that broadened the definition of creed so it includes religion as well as “non-religious belief systems that, like religion, substantially influence a person’s identity, worldview and way of life.” The policy doesn’t provide examples of what could be considered creeds deserving of protection from discrimination, as this has generally come up on a case-by-case basis.
While there can be a lot of things that can qualify as a creed, employers can get an idea of when accommodation is necessary. If an employee can show he has a characteristic protected from discrimination under the code — such as creed — and has experienced negative treatment or an adverse impact in the workplace because of it, and the protected characteristic was a factor in the negative treatment or adverse impact, then the employer should be on alert.
A common theme in a lot of the legal precedents that have dealt with creed is honest belief. If it can be reasonable seen that an employee honestly believes in something, than that can constitute creed warranting human rights protection.
The broad definition of creed in the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s updated policy seems to say that any honest belief warrants protection from discrimination — which means accommodation by employers. In the wake of the commission’s announcement, Animal Justice — a group promoting the humane treatment of animals — and other groups have come forward saying that ethical veganism constitutes a creed deserving protection from discrimination.
Animal Justice has taken the new policy in Ontario to mean veganism and other similar lifestyles are now protected under human rights legislation and have to be accommodated in situations such as animal dissection at schools, leather work uniforms and work events involving eating meat.
However, the chief commissioner of the commission Renu Mandhane, told the Toronto Star that while veganism could theoretically be considered a creed, it would have to be taken before the province’s human rights tribunal for a decision, as has happened with other beliefs determined to be creeds.
“Somehow, this has been spun out to suggest that our policy says that ethical veganism is a creed, which it doesn’t,” Mandhane told the Star. “The tribunal is the place to make these decisions because its decisions are made based on facts.”
What this means is that the Ontario policy changes don’t automatically make any belief an actual creed deserving of protection from discrimination. That’s something that would have to be decided.
What does this mean for an employer if an employee requests accommodation for veganism or some other belief that hasn’t been established as a protected creed? It may be a judgment call. If accommodation isn’t too difficult, it might be easiest just to go ahead with it – and it could pay off with better employee morale if a fight can be avoided. But things can get complicated if it opens the door to just anyone claiming some obscure belief demands accommodation. And as in all accommodation situations, employers are only required to accommodate to the point of undue hardship.
Does Ontario’s new policy change things when it comes to accommodating creed? Should beliefs like veganism be treated the same way as other historically persecuted grounds like religion, race or ethnicity?
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Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.