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Christian business told it can’t discriminate

Fired lesbian wins human rights case

A recent human rights ruling could severely restrict the ability of Christian organizations to discriminate against queer employees.

A tribunal of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) ruled on Apr 15 that Christian Horizons (CH) — a Kitchener-based evangelical organization providing care for developmentally disabled people in group homes — could not fire an employee because of her sexual orientation. The tribunal also ruled that CH could not force its employees to sign a morality and lifestyle contract.

Connie Heintz, herself a Christian, joined CH in 1995 after signing a contract that, among other things, prohibited her from entering into any homosexual relationships. While employed by CH, Heintz came out and was fired in 2000 as a result. She filed a complaint with the OHRC in January 2001.

“This is a person who struggled for many years to reconcile her sexuality with her religious beliefs and then had to go through the same fight with her employer,” says Raj Dhir, the OHRC counsel who represented Heintz.

Dhir says the tribunal ruled against CH because being straight was not an essential requirement of the job.

“Is it a prerequisite to the job of providing love and care to some of our most disadvantaged citizens that you had to refrain from a homosexual relationship?” says Dhir. “The tribunal resolved the conflict by focusing on what was important: the requirements of the job.”

Dhir says the tribunal also considered that CH provides services to non-Christian clients.

According to the OHRC, “Christian Horizons describes itself as an evangelical Christian ministry that provides care and residential services to 1,400 developmentally disabled individuals of all races, creeds and sexual orientations. With over 180 residential homes across Ontario, and 2,500 employees, Christian Horizons is the largest provider of community living services in the province, funded almost exclusively by the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services.”

“They’re primarily engaged in serving disabled people rather than evangelical Christians,” Dhir says. “They’re serving the general population without regard to race, religion, creed or sexual orientation.”

The result, according to the ruling by adjudicator Michael Gottheil, was that CH is not entitled to claim an exemption from the human rights code on hiring policies because of religious grounds.

Gottheil wrote that, while with an exemption, CH could have fired Heintz, its treatment of her would still have violated the code. He wrote that “suggesting Ms Heintz seek counselling in order to effect ‘restoration'” and “creating or permitting a poisoned work environment in which rumours and discriminatory attitudes were allowed to pervade the workplace, and taking no steps to remedy the harmful effects on Ms Heintz” was a violation.

Dhir says the tribunal did not address the fact that CH receives almost all its funding from the government.

“The mere fact of receiving public funding isn’t the problem,” he says. “The tribunal focused on the essential nature of the service. The other part is what are the objective duties of the job?”

The result, Dhir admits, is that the ruling sidesteps the question of whether organizations receiving public funding can ever discriminate or whether it would have made a difference if CH only served developmentally disabled Christian evangelicals.

The OHRC has ruled in the past that organizations are allowed to discriminate against candidates for employment if it would affect their ability to do the job. Women’s shelters, for example, are allowed to discriminate against men when hiring employees for certain jobs. Dhir also points to language requirements.

“A Chinese organization that serves members of the Chinese community may be permitted to hire someone who speaks Mandarin,” he says. “That’s the kind of exemption that’s allowed. It doesn’t allow an exemption to employ only members of its own community.”

Gottheil ruled that Heintz was entitled to lost wages, general damages and damages for mental anguish. He also ordered CH to “no longer require employees to sign a lifestyle and morality statement; develop antidiscrimination policies; provide training to all employees and managers; and review all of its employment policies to ensure that they are in compliance with the Code.”

CH has until May 15 to decide whether to appeal the ruling to the Ontario Divisional Court. Nobody from CH replied to Xtra’s request for an interview.