No special employment exemption for religious organization

Residential care provider doesn’t restrict its services so it can’t discriminate against employees, says human rights tribunal

Worker pushed out after coming out

Christian Horizons promotes its evangelical Christian values in its residential care programs and Connie Heintz agreed to uphold those values by signing a code of conduct statement when she was hired. However, Heintz discovered she was gay, contrary to the code of conduct, and when her employer found out, things became difficult at work.

A human rights tribunal found the organization discriminated against Heintz on the basis of her sexual orientation and did not agree with its claim that it was exempted from the Human Rights Code when it came to employing people who violated its religious values.

Though certain organizations can be allowed to discriminate if it pertains to their religious values, it’s clear human rights tribunals will give little leeway in granting this exemption.

An Ontario religious organization can’t hold its workers to its faith-based values if it doesn’t do the same for the people who use its services, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has ruled.

Christian Horizons ran residential homes across Ontario, providing care and support for people with developmental disabilities. Though it considered itself an evangelical Christian ministry, it received nearly all of the funding for its services from the Ontario government. Applicants went through the government’s “single point of access” for placement at its facilities. Though it provided services to all people who needed them,

Christian Horizons supported a “Christian home environment” at its residences and all staff were required to participate in religious activities.

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.

As a result of this decision, Christian Horizons introduced 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. She was assigned to a home in Waterloo, Ont., where residents were deaf or blind and required assistance with basic tasks.

Heintz signed an employment contract that included a lifestyle and morality statement with the job description. It included a prohibition on homosexual relationships and a duty of setting an example of “the values and integrity” of Christian Horizons.

Gay revelation caused difficulties at work

In 1999, Heintz realized she was a lesbian. She had difficulty reconciling her sexual orientation with her religious upbringing and she confided in two of her co-workers about it. In October 1999, she began a gay relationship outside of work.

In April 2000, the two co-workers confronted Heintz and asked her if she was a lesbian. Shortly after, her supervisor asked if she was in a same-sex relationship. Heintz said yes and she was asked to meet with the regional administrator.

At the meeting, Heintz was told she had violated the lifestyle 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 June 2000, another employee filed a harassment complaint against Heintz that also claimed she had abused a resident. Heintz was suspended with pay during the investigation. Though the investigation didn’t find anything, Heintz was given a disciplinary letter for her behaviour during the interviews.

In late August, Heintz had her performance appraisal, in which her score dropped from the previous year, though she hadn’t been informed of any performance issues prior to her coming out. Many of the criticisms were directly linked to workplace issues when co-workers and management found out she was gay.

Heintz became stressed from these events to the point where she had to go on medical leave on Aug. 28, 2000. On Sept. 22, 2000, she resigned from her position because the stress and work environment weren’t bearable.

Employer claimed exemption from religious discrimination complaints

Heintz filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, claiming she was terminated because of her sexual orientation, a violation of the code. Christian Horizons, as in 1992, claimed it was entitled to special employment provisions of the code and as a religious organization, it had the right to restrict its employment to those who followed its values. It said its lifestyle and morality requirements were reasonable and bona fide qualifications because of the nature of the employment.

The tribunal agreed Christian Horizons was a religious organization. Though it acted as a social service agency contracted by the government, its membership consisted of individuals who are Christian 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.

Didn’t meet requirements for special exemption

However, the tribunal found this restriction did not apply to those it provided its services to. Though Christian Horizons operated its programs as Christian homes, the government funded it as a general care provider and it didn’t give preference to those of its faith. Individuals were placed through the government and they didn’t need to sign the lifestyle 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 while Christian Horizons had an honest and good-faith belief its qualifications were necessary for performing a job in the organization, it failed to consider the “actual activity of the organization, the services it provides and the job functions in the provision of those services,” for which the restrictive qualifications weren’t reasonably necessary.

The tribunal found Christian Horizons discriminated against Heintz based on her sexual orientation. 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 statement.

“Christian Horizons was totally ill-equipped to deal properly with the circumstances of a staff member who came out as being gay,” the tribunal said. “But it was a dilemma Christian Horizons was required to solve. 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.”

The tribunal ordered Christian Horizons to pay Heintz $23,000 in damages plus 10 months’ wages and benefits for the time from her resignation to her finding regular full-time employment elsewhere. It also required the organization to develop a policy prohibiting discrimination and harassment and to no longer impose the lifestyle and morality statement as a condition of employment.

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

For more information see:

Heintz v. Christian Horizons, 2008 HRTO 22 (Ont. Human Rights Trib.).
Christian Horizons’ lifestyle and morality statement

Staff conduct should comply with Christian Horizons’ policies where stated, endorse the Christian commitment of the membership and be a positive example for the people we serve.

While not limiting examples in inappropriate behaviour deemed to be contrary to the teaching of Jesus and His followers as recorded in the New Testament, Christian Horizons does reject conduct such as:

•extra-marital sexual relationships (adultery);
•pre-marital sexual relationships (fornication);
•reading or viewing pornographic material;
•homosexual relationships;
•theft, fraud;
•physical aggression;
•abusive behaviour;
•sexual assault/harassment;
•lying and deceit; and
•the use of illicit drugs

as being incompatible with effective Christian counselling ideals, standards and values.

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