I recognize that today’s post won’t be as significant to my largely U.S. readership, but it has major repercussions here in Canada, so I hope you’ll permit me this domestic story. For context, the EFC (Evangelical Fellowship of Canada) is our version of the NAE (National Association of Evangelicals) which sometimes also fulfills the role taken on in the U.S. by the ACLJ (American Center for Law and Justice) lobbying in Canada’s capital on behalf of Christian ideals.
Over two years ago on this blog, I reported on a complaint filed by Connie Heintz, a former employee of Christian Horizons, a Christian organization which operates group homes for developmentally challenged adults. The big picture issue was the requirement by CH that employees live up to a lifestyle clause with certain moral or behavioral guidelines. The complaint was filed with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (OHRT), a group with a reputation for never losing; so this was a David vs. Goliath type of battle.
But it was also a battle with large scale implications for Christian (and by extension various other religious groups’) organizations of all stripes, not to mention churches. The OHRT argued that on the basis of the variety of people being served and on the basis of the government funding received by Christian Horizons. (Read the editorial that is part of the above link, which comprises the second two-thirds of the blog post.)
Wednesday, we received this announcement in an e-mail from EFC, which you can also read online:
OTTAWA – In December 2009, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) appeared before the Superior Court of Ontario, Divisional Court, in the landmark religious freedom case, Heintz v. Christian Horizons. The court, which heard an appeal of the decision of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (OHRT), released its decision late Friday afternoon.
Christian Horizons, a faith-based ministry, employs over 2,500 people to provide housing, care and support to over 1,400 developmentally disabled individuals, and has done so for more than 40 years. This Christian ministry, which requires its employees to sign a Statement of Faith and a Lifestyle and Morality Policy, was the subject of a human rights complaint when a staff member resigned after she felt she could no longer live according to the commitment she made when she signed the policy.
In the decision being appealed, the OHRT had ruled that Christian Horizon’s efforts were not the ministry of a religious community but rather social work and that it, as well as other faith-based bodies serving public needs on a non-discriminatory basis, could no longer require that employees share their religious beliefs and resulting service commitment. The Divisional Court ruled differently and reversed much of the OHRT’s decision.
“This is significant victory for faith-based charities across Canada. While they must clarify certain governing documents and review certain employment policies, they may largely continue to require employee compliance with both statements of faith and lifestyle and morality policies,” said Don Hutchinson, the EFC’s Vice-President and General Legal Counsel.
“We’re relieved to see the court found that the exemption provision in the Ontario Human Rights Code which permits certain charities, including religious charities, to selectively hire employees who share the same beliefs makes no private/public distinction. This means that Christian charities may continue to serve non co-religionists in society all while maintaining their internal religious ethos and integrity,” continued Hutchinson. “I’m relieved that the court recognized that the exemption exists to guarantee the right to free association in this way. This was of serious concern as the OHRT had found otherwise.”
“Of course, we are also disappointed that the Court found it reasonable for the OHRT to have concluded that Christian Horizons did not meet an objective test for a bona fide occupational requirement for Ms. Heintz’s job, but the Court was instructive as to how that situation may be corrected.”
“What does this mean for Christian charities across Canada? Well, it means that it’s time again for them to clarify their statements of faith, lifestyle policies and job descriptions for all employees in order to clearly demonstrate how compliance with both statement of faith and codes of conduct are necessary for and related to job duties.”
This case is huge here, and while Christian Horizons didn’t have the resources to fight this on their own, there was simply too much at stake here for Canadian Christian charities, hence the involvement of EFC.
UPDATE: Here’s a different perspective on the recent decision from an editorial in Canada’s national newspaper, The National Post.
ALSO: “…But the gay rights group EGALE, which was an intervenor in the court case, also said this week’s ruling was a victory. Lawyer Cynthia Petersen said the ruling would make it hard for religious charities to prove that a person’s sexual orientation or beliefs would get in the way of their duties.” That quotation is from an article in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.
FURTHER UPDATE (5.21.10) Here’s a summary of the decision posted on a blog operated by CFPL, the Centre for Faith and Public Life, a division of EFC.