Canada
4 min

Churches shouldn’t run our social services

Ruling inspires religious groups to decline funding

A recent Ontario Human Rights Commission ruling has some religious commentators considering whether churches should stop taking public funds, including tax exemptions.

For inspiring that debate alone, the decision should be praised, even if those commentators are, in fact, misinterpreting it.

The decision — released Apr 15 — stated 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 OHRC tribunal also ruled that CH could not force its employees to sign a morality and lifestyle contract.

The tribunal ruled that because CH provided services to, in CH’s own words, “developmentally disabled individuals of all races, creeds and sexual orientations,” they could not only hire evangelical Christians. The tribunal also decided that sexual orientation did not affect an employee’s ability to care for the disabled.

Now Christians are claiming the OHRC decision was based on the fact that CH is funded almost exclusively by the Ontario government. In fact the decision was much more damning, so to speak, than that.

What the decision means is that, in Ontario at least, religious organizations will have to consider the nature of the job, not an employee’s beliefs or lifestyle. If religious belief or who one sleeps with doesn’t affect the nature of the actual job, they cannot be considered as factors. And that applies regardless of whether the organization is receiving public funding.

As it happens, religious organizations are increasingly moving into the business of publicly-funded social service agencies. And with governments downloading more social services to religious organizations — just like CH — this is going to become a bigger issue. Religious organizations are taking billions of dollars across the country to run shelters and group homes, and are employing thousands of people. The decision means they cannot now discriminate in who they hire.

The decision actually sidestepped the questions of whether public funding automatically prevents organizations from discriminating in hiring or whether it would be different if CH only served disabled Christian evangelicals.

Groups that receive public money are already prohibited from discriminating against clients — except in cases like abused women’s shelters — by most federal, provincial and municipal governments. In many cases — take the Toronto Catholic Children’s Aid Society, which refuses to let queer couples adopt — they do it anyway and get away with it.

But this latest ruling appears to be inspiring some religious types to consider declining any type of public funding whatsoever, including funding to run social service agencies and the tax-exempt privileges that many churches enjoy.

“The day is coming when the church, as an institution, will have to decide which it will serve,” writes Nigel Hannaford, a columnist with the Calgary Herald. “Loss of tax privileges would grievously hurt its ability to serve the community. Yet the church’s first duty is to be faithful to God’s word — service is a consequence of that, not the church’s prime function — and that may come at a price.

“Didn’t it always, though? The quicker the church weans itself off tax privileges, the quicker it will be strengthened to resist the state when the state intrudes on its doctrine.”

I agree wholeheartedly, although that last sentence sounds like Waco-style paranoia. But it’s certainly time we started fully following the principles of separation of church and state again. Religious institutions should not be running our social service agencies. That’s the government’s job. And if this OHRC decision leads to a retreat from social services by churches, then I say God bless the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

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The debate over whether to remove the Lord’s Prayer from the Ontario legislature continues. According to news reports, the proposal has prompted 6,000 submissions from the public — enough to crash the legislature’s website — and hundreds of phone calls. The Conservatives have presented over 100 petitions containing 23,000 signatures. And most of those submissions apparently support keeping the Lord’s Prayer as the opener to sessions of the legislature.

Once again, though, I don’t feel this is an issue that should be decided by how many submissions a committee receives. This should be viewed as a human rights issue. Having a Christian prayer — or indeed any prayer — at the start of every session of a legislature that is supposed to represent every single Ontarian is violation of my rights.

It implies that the legislature is going to follow Judeo-Christian teachings and morality in its decisions, which of course would mean discrimination against countless minority groups, especially queers. And if the legislature isn’t following religious teaching, then why on earth do we need our elected politicians reciting the Lord’s Prayer every day to celebrate some mythical glorious past constructed by our Christian ancestors.

New Brunswick and PEI are the only other provinces still reciting the Lord’s Prayer in their legislatures.

I’m not claiming this is the most pressing issue facing us today. But am I alone in thinking this is actually important to our community?

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A US soldier has filed a complaint alleging that he faces discrimination and harassment for being an atheist. Jeremy Hall claims a superior officer threatened him with charges for trying to organize a meeting of atheists while he was serving in Iraq and that he faced harassment from fellow soldiers, including being called immoral, a devil worshipper and gay.

According to the Associated Press, “It eventually came out in Iraq in 2007, when he was in a firefight. Hall was a gunner on a Humvee, which took several bullets in its protective shield. Afterward, his commander asked whether he believed in God, Hall said.

“I said, ‘No, but I believe in Plexiglas,’ Hall said. ‘I’ve never believed I was going to a happy place. You get one life. When I die, I’m worm food.'”

So there may be no atheists in a foxhole, but apparently there are in a Humvee. And, at the risk of stating the obvious, it wasn’t atheism that got the US into Iraq.