Christian Horizons’ appeal for exemption to discriminate based on religion allowed, but court says it must prove it’s necessary for the job
An Ontario religious organization is allowed to employ only people who share in its beliefs, but only if those beliefs are necessary to do a particular job, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has ruled.
Christian Horizons was an evangelical Christian organization operating residential care facilities, camps and day programs for people with developmental disabilities. It was founded as a ministry and only hired evangelical Christians as staff. The organization’s values were reflected in a statement of lifestyle requirements which all employees were required to sign and follow. The lifestyle statement prohibited behaviours such as adultery, premarital sex, homosexual relationships, theft, lying and physical abuse.
In 1995, Christian Horizons hired Connie Heintz as a support worker in a community living residence. She signed the lifestyle statement and participated in religious activities at the residence.
In 1999, Heintz began a relationship with another woman. She still shared most evangelical Christian beliefs, but questioned those dealing with homosexuality. In 2000, she told two co-workers of her relationship and word spread. She was offered counselling and was accused of harassing a co-worker. She eventually went on stress leave and later resigned.
When Heintz filed a human rights complaint, Christian Horizons argued it was entitled to discriminate against her because her lifestyle went against its religious beliefs. The Ontario Human Rights Code allowed religious organizations who were “primarily engaged in serving the interests of persons identified by their race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, creed, sex, age, marital status or disability” and employed only those who shared their beliefs to show preference for “persons similarly identified” because those beliefs were a bona fide job qualification.
The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal agreed Christian Horizons was a religious organization, but found it didn’t qualify for the exemption because it didn’t serve only those who shared its beliefs. The organization cared for any people with developmental disabilities, regardless of religion. Though it carried out religious activities at its facilities, patients weren’t required to participate.
The tribunal also found Christian Horizons made no real effort to determine if the prohibition of homosexual relationships among staff was reasonably necessary to the performance of their jobs and ordered it to pay Heintz $23,000 for the discrimination against her and 10 months’ salary for wrongful dismissal.
Organization can hire by religion if necessary for job duties
Christian Horizons appealed to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, which agreed with the organization to a certain extent. The court found the tribunal’s interpretation of the exemption ignored its purpose — to allow groups the right to join together, share their views and carry out their joint activities. According to the tribunal’s interpretation, no religious organization would be able to use the exemption if they provided any services to people not of their religion, said the court.
“In effect, the religious character of the charitable mission would be rendered impossible if the mission served individuals outside of the faith group,” said the court.
The court found Christian Horizons’ purpose was still to primarily serve and promote the interests of people of its faith. People with developmental disabilities who didn’t share that faith simply benefitted from the generous scope of its care, said the court. Therefore,
Christian Horizons was entitled to the special exemption in the code.
However, the court upheld the finding of discrimination against Heintz because of her sexual orientation. Though Christian Horizons qualified for the discrimination exemption, that exemption still required proof the discriminatory standard was a bona fide qualification for the job. Though the prohibition of homosexual relationships was sincerely believed by the organization to be incompatible with its standards and values, the court found it was not necessary for Heintz’s job as a support worker.
The court found Christian Horizons’ service was not religious education and a support worker’s primary function was not to preach its values. It also found Christian Horizons didn’t closely examine the duties of support workers to determine why a ban on homosexual relationships was necessary to do the job effectively. It also did nothing to educate its staff on avoiding discrimination against gays and lesbians.
“A discriminatory qualification cannot be justified in the absence of a direct and substantial relationship between the qualification and the abilities, qualities or attributes needed to satisfactorily perform the particular job,” said the court.
The court upheld the damage awards and revised the tribunal’s order to stop imposing the lifestyle statement on employees, ruling only the prohibition on homosexual relationships should be deleted. See Ontario Human Rights Commission v. Christian Horizons, 2010 ONSC 2105 (Ont. S.C.).