Religious organization can’t discriminate against employees: Tribunal

Care provider doesn’t restrict its services to those of its faith, so it can’t discriminate against gay employee: Human rights tribunal
By Jeffrey R. Smith
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/09/2008

Religious organizations can’t demand workers to adhere to faith-based values as part of their jobs if they don’t do the same for clients, according to a ruling by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

Christian Horizons runs residential homes across Ontario, providing care and support for people with developmental disabilities. Though it considers itself an evangelical Christian ministry, it receives nearly all of its funding, $75 million annually, from the Ontario government.

In 1992, Christian Horizons fired two employees because they were living in common-law relationships, which were against the organization’s values. It subsequently lost a human rights complaint when the board found the organization didn’t qualify for a special employment exemption from the Human Rights Code because it didn’t clearly communicate its standards to employees.

Christian Horizons responded by establishing lifestyle standards as part of its employment contracts to ensure employees met its values.

Worker signed lifestyle agreement

Connie Heintz, 39, was hired as a support worker in March 1995 and two months later she obtained a permanent full-time position at a Waterloo, Ont., facility where residents were deaf or blind and required assistance with basic daily routines.

When Heintz started the job, she signed an employment contract that included a lifestyle and morality statement. This statement included a prohibition on homosexual relationships and said employees must set an example of “the values and integrity” of the organization.

Gay revelation caused difficulties at work

In 1999, Heintz confided in two co-workers that she was a lesbian. In October 1999, she began a relationship with another woman outside of work.

In April 2000, the two co-workers confronted Heintz about her sexuality and her supervisor also asked if she was in a same-sex relationship. Heintz admitted it and she was asked to meet with the regional administrator.

The administrator told Heintz she violated the lifestyle and morality statement and would have to find work elsewhere or be terminated. She was also offered counselling and was told she had until September to “effect changes.”

In August, Heintz had her performance appraisal and her rating dropped from the previous year. She received several “requires improvement” ratings. However, she hadn’t been informed of any performance issues. Many of the criticisms, such as managing conflict and balancing personal and work life, were directly linked to workplace issues after co-workers and management found out she was gay.

Heintz became stressed to the point where she had to go on medical leave on Aug. 28, 2000. She soon resigned from her position because the stress and work environment weren’t bearable. She felt staff thought she was “scum and dirt” and didn’t treat her like a human being.

Employer claimed exemption from religious discrimination complaints

Heintz complained to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal that she was terminated because of her sexual orientation. Christian Horizons said, as a religious organization, it had the right to restrict its employment to those who followed its values, according to the special exemption under the code. It said its lifestyle and morality statement made its values clear and was a reasonable and bona fide qualification because of the nature of the employment.

The tribunal agreed Christian Horizons met the definition of a religious organization under the code’s exemption. Its membership consisted of individuals who were of the Christian faith and joined it as a Christian organization. It also restricted employment to those who agreed to follow the articles of faith set out in its lifestyle and morality statement.

Clients not asked to follow values

However, the tribunal found Christian Horizons didn’t apply this restriction to its clients. Though it operated its programs as Christian homes, the government funded it as a general residential care provider and it didn’t give preference to those of Christian faith. Individuals were placed with Christian Horizons through the government and they didn’t need to sign the lifestyle and morality statement.

“The primary object and mission of Christian Horizons is to provide care and support for individuals who have developmental disabilities, without regard to their creed,” the tribunal said. “In special employment cases, there is typically an identity between the characteristics of the members of the organization and the characteristics of the individuals who are served by the organization.”

The tribunal also found Christian Horizons failed to consider the actual requirements and circumstances of the job, for which the restrictive qualifications weren’t reasonably necessary. The morality and lifestyle qualifications weren’t based on the job but were created from a poll of employees.

Christian Horizons discriminated against Heintz based on her sexual orientation by offering counselling for her homosexuality and pressuring her to leave, said the tribunal. This discrimination created a poisoned work environment and led to her resignation. It was also clear had she not resigned, she would have been terminated for her non-compliance with the lifestyle and morality statement.

“Ms. Heintz should not have been required to endure the humiliation, attacks and mistreatment because Christian Horizons had not developed an understanding of the obligations placed on all employers by the code, whether or not they are entitled to an exemption,” said the tribunal.

For more information see:

Heintz v. Horizons

, 2008 CarswellOnt 2633 (Ont. Human Rights Trib.).

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a sister publication to Canadian HR Reporter that looks at employment law from a business perspective. For more information, visit

employmentlawtoday.com

.


Costly decision

Worker awarded notice, $23,000 in damages

The tribunal ordered Christian Horizons to pay Heintz $23,000 in damages for the discrimination and 10 months’ wages and benefits. It also ordered the organization to develop an anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy and remove the lifestyle and morality statement as a condition of employment.

Christian Horizons said it would no longer require employees to sign the statement, but planned to appeal the rest of the tribunal’s decision.

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