Human rights tribunal forces Christian organization to ditch morality code

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News

OTTAWA (CCN) -- The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (OHRT) has ordered an evangelical Christian charity to rescind its morality code and require employees undergo anti-discrimination training.

It also ordered Christian Horizons to pay $23,000 to a former employee who engaged in a lesbian relationship after signing the code. That award includes $10,000 for general damages and $5,000 for mental anguish due to a poisoned work environment.

Christian Horizons is an evangelical Christian charity that serves about 1,400 developmentally disabled people. It helps them live in the community in Christian homes or apartments under the supervision of staff.

The organization required its employees to sign a 'Lifestyle and Morality Statement' that prohibited homosexual activity, viewing pornography and other activities deemed contrary to the living out of the Christian faith.

"The decision is inconsistent with a proper understanding of freedom of religion under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," said constitutional lawyer Peter Lauwers in an interview from Toronto. "It really challenges social welfare organizations that are run by Christian and other faith groups on the basis of whether they will continue provide the services they do."

Lauwers pointed out most Christian organizations serve out of a sense of vocation and fidelity to moral standards. He wondered how many people who contribute time and money to these organizations will continue to do so if they no longer reflect their authentic religious convictions.

"Christian service of others is an integral extension of the Evangelical Christian faith," wrote the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada's general legal counsel Don Hutchinson in an April 29 National Post op-ed. "The attempt to sever that link is to misunderstand the nature of religion and undermine the very ethos that undergirds Christian Horizons' expression of care and compassion for others."

The Catholic Civil Rights League has raised concerns about the OHRT throwing out Christian Horizon's morality statement. The complainant, Connie Heintz, 39, had signed the statement when she first started working for the charity because, as a Mennonite, she agreed with its principles.

Then she underwent a crisis of faith and revealed she had become involved in a lesbian relationship.

"The decision challenges the value of employment and organizational contracts, if a clearly-worded agreement signed voluntarily can so summarily be made non-binding," said Catholic Civil Rights League executive director Joanne McGarry in an April 28 statement. "The employee in this instance signed the undertaking as a member of the denomination, understood its contents, yet wanted it disregarded later."

McGarry pointed out that not only employers, but independent schools, residences, clubs and cooperative housing also require people to sign pledges agreeing to refrain from certain legal activities.

"In the League's view, this decision could make all such contracts open to re-interpretation upon request," she said.

Christian Horizons also faced sanctions for asking Heintz to consider Christian counselling to restore her to her previous faith.

The OHRT ruled "the attempt of 'restoration' for persons who are gay or lesbian is profoundly disrespectful and oppressive.'

Though witnesses testified the beliefs concerning human sexuality were fundamental evangelical Christian beliefs, the Tribunal said, "But employers in Ontario are not allowed to permit, let alone foster work environments in which these attitudes are acted out."

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Though the OHRT recognized that religious organizations could restrict hiring for ministries that served members of their own faith group, Christian Horizons serves disabled people of all faith backgrounds. It depends on $75 million in government funding, so it must obey the Ontario Human Rights Code.

"Christian Horizon's policy is discriminatory," the ruling said. "While some elements of Canadian society may continue to debate whether gays and lesbians should be treated equally and entitled to equal rights and opportunity, from a legal perspective that debate has ended."

"Its policy, based on the belief that homosexuality was unnatural and immoral, engendered fear, ignorance, hatred and suspicion," the ruling said.

The OHRT gave Christian Horizons four months to comply with its ruling.

Christian Horizons decided on Wednesday to appeal at least part of the April 15 decision.

Related stories:

Lesbian wins $23,000 from Christian group
A Christian evangelical charity group has been ordered to pay a long-time employee $23,000 plus lost wages for terminating her employment on the grounds of her homosexuality. Connie Heintz, 39, a Christian of Mennonite heritage, complained to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario after being fired on Sept. 23, 2000, when directors of Christian Horizons discovered she had been discussing her sexual orientation with co-workers, and had come to believe she was gay.
National Post, April 26

Ont. should consider pulling funding from religious group: critics
Ontario should consider pulling funding from a Christian group that has a history of human rights complaints and was recently ordered to compensate a worker who had to quit after revealing she was gay, the province's opposition parties say. The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario recently ordered Kitchener, Ont.-based Christian Horizons to compensate former employee Connie Heintz and to end a prohibitive code-of-conduct contract for its 2,500 employees - the second time the tribunal has had to deal with a complaint against the evangelical organization. The tribunal's predecessor, the Human Rights Board of Inquiry, ruled in 1992 that two women fired by the organization for being in common-law relationships be paid $65,000.
Canadian Press, April 27

Policing thought in Ontario
Christian Horizons is an evangelical organization with a mission to people with developmental disabilities. It is also the largest operator of special-needs residential homes in Ontario. Under a $75-million annual contract with the provincial government, it runs 180 group homes for 1,400 residents and employs 2,500 staff. Now Christian Horizons (CH) has also run afoul of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC). In a ruling, released last week, that once again proves rights tribunals are little more than politically correct thought police, the OHRC declared CH was wrong to make its employees sign a morality pledge as a condition of employment.
Lorne Gunter, National Post, April 28

The Ontario's Human Rights Commission is trying to take the mission out of Christian Horizons
Imagine that Mother Theresa and her Missionaries of Charity had been told that their ministry in the streets of Calcutta was, in essence, not ministry but "social work." In order for the sisters to continue in their work, they would no longer be permitted to require that staff members share their beliefs and ministry commitment. As bizarre as this may sound, this is essentially what a single adjudicator acting as an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal recently decided in the case of Heintz v Christian Horizons.
Don Hutchinson, National Post, April 28

Ontario Christian group to appeal rights ruling
The group said it will no longer require employees to sign the agreement, but it will be appealing the rest of the tribunal's order.
Canadian Press, May 7

May 8/2008