Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
January 26, 2009
Ont. Christian group under fire for serving disabled
BY DEBORAH GYAPONG
CANADIAN CATHOLIC NEWS
OTTAWA — The Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops has intervened in a religious freedom case that involves the rights of faith-based organizations to hire like-minded employees and still serve the wider public.
The OCCB has joined the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and other groups in Christian Horizons’ appeal of last year’s Ontario Human Rights Tribunal decision that ordered the charity to pay a former employee $23,000.
The organization was also ordered to have its employees undergo anti-discrimination training and abolish its lifestyle and morality code requirement.
Christian Horizons is an evangelical Christian charity that serves developmentally disabled adults of all faiths. It has a staff of 2,300.
The one-person tribunal ruled the charity could insist its employees abide by its faith and morality code only if it restricted itself to serving a clientele who are evangelical Christians.
“This Christian Horizons case is extremely important because it has the capacity to really restrict religions to the sidelines,” said Iain Benson, a constitutional lawyer who is advising the bishops. “It would represent an extraordinary truncation of the public dimension of religious belief and conduct.”
Catholic canon law teaches that charity is an obligation, and that the role of the Church is to “assist the betterment not just of Catholics, but of everybody, all human persons,” he said.
“We don’t want the state truncating our religious purpose, which is to serve the needy, who are not just members of our own faith.”
CRISIS OF FAITH
The complainant Connie Heintz had signed Christian Horizons’ morality code when she was hired. Five years later, she experienced a crisis of faith and entered into a lesbian relationship, contrary to the code. Christian Horizons let her go.
EFC legal counsel Don Hutchinson said the adjudicator in the case ruled that an organization cannot have two primary purposes.
“He determined the primary purpose was to provide service to the developmentally disabled, therefore Christian Horizons was not entitled to the exemption found in Sec. 24 (1) (a) of the Ontario Human Rights Code.”
That section lets some groups restrict hiring to people of like disposition.
“Christian Horizons has two primary purposes: creating an environment for evangelical Christians to come together to provide a ministry to the developmentally disabled,” Hutchinson said. “The second primary purpose was in fact the service to the developmentally disabled.”
Hutchinson likened the decision to a situation where Mother Teresa was told she could continue to work with nuns if she only provided care to Catholics.
What if Christian organizations that supplied international relief had to ask people to share their faith before giving aid, he asked, or inner city programs had to conduct an interview before a homeless person could be served.
“If you’re not a Christian, you’ll have to sleep out on the sidewalk tonight, no matter how cold it is,” he said. “It is ridiculous in the simplest application.”
Hutchinson pointed out that those motivated by faith to provide service will often provide an equal or greater quality service at a lower expense because their motivation is ministry.
He said representatives from Ontario’s social services ministry said Christian Horizons served individuals that other group homes would not accept.
“Those who were found too difficult to work with were warmly received at Christian Horizons without complaint.”