3 min

Knights vs lesbians

Tribunal tries to balance freedom of religion with gay rights

A BC Human rights Tribunal ruling attempting to strike a balance between gay rights and freedom of religion has left both parties feeling dissatisfied.

The Nov 29 ruling revolves around a lesbian couple who inadvertently rented a hall from a Catholic fraternity for their wedding reception, and the fraternity which withdrew the rental when it found out the wedding wasn’t straight.

The ordeal began two years ago, when Deborah Chymyshyn drove past a hall operated by the Knights of Columbus with a For Rent sign on it. Hoping it would be large enough to hold their reception, she and her partner, Tracey Smith, met with the manager.

Neither lesbian took note of the hall’s cross, papal pictures, adjacent church, or Knights’ symbol. The hall manager, in turn, assumed the reception was for a heterosexual wedding. They signed the rental contract on Sep 3, 2003.

The problem arose a few weeks later when the Knights, a worldwide society of more than 1.6 million Catholic men dedicated to promoting the teachings of the Catholic Church, realized their hall had been rented for a lesbian wedding reception. The Knights said they could not condone such an event and ordered their hall manager to cancel the agreement and reimburse the couple.

The lesbians filed a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal, saying the Knights discriminated against them on the basis of their sexual orientation, which is contrary to Section 8 of the BC Human Rights Code.

The Knights replied that they had a justifiable reason based on their “core religious beliefs” for denying the lesbians access to their hall. Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights protects freedom of religion.

The tribunal tried to strike a balance and protect both parties’ rights.

“The Panel accepts that the Knights’ religious belief that same-sex marriage is morally wrong is sincerely held and is intimately connected with the beliefs of the Catholic Church,” began the three-judge panel hearing the case. “Furthermore, the Panel accepts that the complainants have the constitutional right to be married.”

But do they have the right to hold their wedding reception in a hall owned by a Catholic society?

No, the panel ruled, they do not.

Had the hall been an entirely commercial space available to the public for rent, with no religious affiliation, the lesbians would have been entitled to equal access to that space, the tribunal ruled. But this hall is part commercial and part religious. It is located on land owned by the Catholic Archdiocese and managed by a Catholic fraternity.

Renting the hall to a lesbian wedding reception would have required the Knights “to indirectly condone the celebration of a same-sex marriage, an act that is contrary to their core beliefs,” the tribunal ruled, upholding the Knights’ freedom of religion.

But the tribunal did not stop there. Though it upheld the Knights’ religious freedom, it also said they should have taken more steps to accommodate the lesbians after they cancelled the rental contract. The Knights could have offered to help the lesbians find a different hall, the tribunal suggested.

“The fact is they gave no thought to any option other than cancelling the rental. In the circumstances of this case, including the fact that the hall was not solely a religious space, and the existence of the agreement between the parties for its rental, the Panel finds that the Knights should have taken these steps, which would have appropriately balanced the rights of both parties,” the tribunal ruled.

The tribunal then ordered the Knights to pay each lesbian $1,000 for injury to dignity, and not to commit such an offence again.

The lesbians’ lawyer, barbara findlay, is unhappy with the tribunal’s decision to uphold the Knights’ religious freedom. This ruling says the Knights can “break the contract with impunity” as long as they’re polite and accommodating while they do it, she says. “We say that’s no protection at all.”

It’s important to respect freedom of religion, findlay says, but “we also know the views of the Catholic Church have been very damaging to gays and lesbians and contribute overall to a rationale for continued homophobia.”

Besides, she maintains, this hall is more commercial than religious. The Knights rent it to “everybody and their dog.”

The Knights’ lawyer, George Macintosh, isn’t completely satisfied either.

Though he’s pleased the tribunal upheld the Knights’ religious freedom, he disputes the assertion that his clients didn’t take sufficient steps to accommodate the lesbians. The hall manager apologized to the lesbians and immediately returned their cheques, he says. “The Knights acted completely reasonably.”

Findlay says she’ll appeal the decision. “It’s a big defeat,” she says. “We won the battle but lost the war.”