Judge orders Catholic school board to face tribunal over firing of transgender teacher

The school board has defended their decision. "The teaching of the Catholic Church is that persons cannot change their gender. One’s gender is considered what God created us to be," it says.
Mon Jan 13, 2014 - 5:06 pm EST

EDMONTON, Alberta, January 13, 2014 ( – An Alberta judge has ruled that a Catholic school board face a hearing at the province’s human rights tribunal over its decision to remove a transgender activist from its list of substitute teachers.

The case tests the right of Catholic schools to hire and teach according to their denominational beliefs, which are protected in the Constitution Act 1867.

In 2009, Janet Buterman, 39 at the time, filed a human rights complaint against the Greater St. Albert Catholic School Board after she said the board discriminated against her on the grounds of gender and physical disability — what court documents referred to as gender identity disorder — by removing her from the list. She was not a contracted employee.

The board defended its move at the time in a letter to Buterman, stating: “In discussions with the Archbishop of the Edmonton Diocese, the teaching of the Catholic Church is that persons cannot change their gender. One’s gender is considered what God created us to be.”

The board stated that it followed the teachings of the Catholic Church and that it intentionally hired teachers who modeled and lived these teachings.

"Your gender change is not aligned with the teachings of the Church," continued the letter, "and would create confusion and complexity with students and parents as a model and witness to Catholic faith values."

But Buterman complained to the Alberta Human Rights Commission (AHRC), arguing that the Catholic board did not have the right to let its beliefs enter decisions about employment. “It appears to me they think they have a right to make employment decisions based on claims, tenets of faith," she told the Edmonton Journal in 2009. "From my perspective, as a public employer, they do not."

At one point the board offered Buterman a settlement of $78,000, which she rejected because it included a confidentiality clause that would prevent her from discussing the case.

“I don’t want to be muzzled,” she told the Toronto Star in 2011. “They don’t want me to talk about the fact that they, as an employer, claiming authority from the Catholic Church, have discriminated against me because of my medical status as a transsexual person.”

During this time Buterman did not hide her work as a political activist for the Trans Equality Society of Alberta.

The director of the Alberta Human Rights Commission threw out Buterman’s complaint in 2011, saying it was “without merit.” But the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals overturned that decision in 2012. The board then asked for a judicial review.

Writing from the Court of Queen’s Bench last week, Justice Sheila Greckol upheld the Chief’s decision that Buterman deserved a hearing.

“Five years have passed since the school board terminated Mr. Buterman. The voluminous and continual retreading of arguments at the commission, as well as this application for early judicial intervention on thin grounds, has served only to delay the hearing on the merits,” Greckol wrote in the ruling, as reported by the Canadian Press.

“Human rights process is not only for the lion-hearted and well-heeled conversant with litigation, but also for the timorous and impecunious – for all Albertans.” 

“The expeditious resolution of complaints becomes an issue of access to justice; justice delayed is justice denied,” she wrote.

Archbishop Richard Smith as well as school board superintendent David Keohane declined’s request for comment.

Critics have characterized the Alberta Human Rights Commission (AHRC) as a “kangaroo court,” claiming it disregards judicial processes and rules-of-evidence that apply to regular court proceedings.

The AHRC received special notoriety for the case involving Christian pastor Stephen Boissoin, who it found guilty in 2007 of hate speech for writing a letter in a local paper critical of homosexuality. The Alberta Court of Queen's Bench overturned that decision in 2009, saying the tribunal overstepped its constitutional bounds and took significant procedural liberties that would have never been permitted in a real court.

The school board has not yet decided if it will appeal the decision. A date to appear before the tribunal has not yet been set.