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Ontario Human Rights Commission v. Christian Horizons

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On May 14, 2010, Ontario’s Divisional Court issued a decision on a case called Ontario Human Rights Commission v. Christian Horizons. The Divisional Court’s ruling was on the appeal of a 2008 decision made by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. In that decision, the Tribunal found that Christian Horizons infringed the rights of an employee who was in a same sex relationship.

Christian Horizons is a non-profit, faith-based charitable organization. It provides residential homes and care and support to more than 1,400 Ontarians with developmental disabilities, regardless of creed. This work is publically funded. The Tribunal found that the service Christian Horizons provides is not religious education and indoctrination.

Christian Horizons employees were required to sign a “Life Style and Morality Statement”. The statement barred, among other things, “extra-marital sexual relationships (adultery), pre-marital sexual relationships (fornication), reading or viewing pornographic material [and] homosexual relationships…”

At issue was the right of Christian Horizons to require its employees to sign a Lifestyle and Morality statement that prohibits employees from homosexual relationships, and the right of a gay employee in this organization to be free of discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment.

For Christian Horizons, the Court’s decision affirms that “…Christian Horizons operates its group homes for religious reasons -- in order to carry out a Christian mission, imitating the work of Jesus Christ by serving those in need. It would not be doing this work of assisting people with disabilities in a Christian home environment but for the religious calling of those involved…”

The decision also amends an earlier requirement for policy development and staff training to focus on the crux of the human rights issue in this case, discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation. And, it allows Christian Horizons to continue to use its Lifestyle and Morality Statement as a condition for employment but calls on the organization to delete the reference to same sex relationships because it is discriminatory.

The Divisional Court’s ruling also found that Christian Horizons was unable to prove that avoiding a same-sex relationship was a valid occupational qualification for a support worker. Support workers cook, clean, do laundry, help residents eat and wash, and take them to appointments. It further states that, “…support workers are not hired or expected to bring the residents into the Evangelical Christian religion by having them adopt a certain lifestyle. The fact is that the support workers’ employment and the tasks they perform are not intended to infuse the residents of the homes that Christian Horizons serves with the lifestyle morals that Christian Horizons demands of its adherents.”

The Court’s decision is consistent with existing jurisprudence; bona fide occupational qualification exceptions in human rights legislation should be interpreted restrictively since they may take away rights from others.

It also emphasizes that an employer who wants to rely on a bona fide occupational qualification exception in human rights legislation must prove a direct and substantial relationship between the job’s qualifications and the abilities and qualities needed to satisfactorily perform the particular job.

The ruling further upholds the damages awarded to the support worker.

This case shows just how difficult it is to strike a balance between different competing rights -- the right to be free of discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and the right of a religious organization to employ members who adhere to core faith beliefs, even when providing a secular service.

In today’s increasingly diverse multicultural and multi-religious society, the issue of balancing competing rights will continue to arise. The Commission has begun to engage a wide range of stakeholders, including members of the Evangelical Christian community, to help develop mechanisms or processes to address situations in which different human rights conflict with each other. Earlier this year, it held an initial two-day “Dialogue” at York University to discuss how to bring different groups together to address this issue. In the upcoming year, it plans to continue seeking input and advice as it undertakes further work on this challenging issue.

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