By Thaddeus M. Baklinski
TORONTO, December 16, 2009 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The ruling of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (OHRT) against a Christian ministry serving disabled people in Ontario is being challenged in the Ontario Divisional Court today.
The case involves a former employee of the Evangelical Christian ministry Christian Horizons, who resigned because she had entered into a homosexual relationship, which contravened her commitment to the group's Statement of Faith and Lifestyle Policy.
Christian Horizons operates more than 180 residential homes for people with developmental disabilities and serves about 1,400 people. Although it is funded by the Ontario government at $75 million a year, the agency relies on the religious commitment of its evangelical and Christian employees to help it carry out this charitable work.
The complainant, Connie Heintz, had freely signed onto the “morality statement” as a condition of employment in 1995, and promised not to engage in “homosexual relationships,” among other anti-Christian activities such as “extra-marital sexual relationships (adultery)”, “pre-marital sexual relationships (fornication),” “viewing or reading pornographic material” and “lying.”
Heintz claimed in her human rights complaint that she was forced out of her employment (she was not dismissed but chose to resign) after she publicly admitted to being an active lesbian.
In April 2008, the OHRT ruled against the evangelical social service agency. Mr. Gottheil of the OHRT stated that the agency could not insist on faith requirements for moral behavior in its hiring, nor require employees to sign agreements attesting to such requirements. Gottheil also imposed a fine of $23,000, to be paid to the complainant.
As a result of the ruling Christian Horizons dropped its requirement that employees sign a basic morality statement.
“This decision was shocking,” said Faye Sonier, Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) legal counsel, commenting on the OHRT ruling. “It's inconsistent with long-standing Supreme Court jurisprudence that clearly sets out that people of faith can choose to gather for ministry works and service – this has been confirmed as an extension of their right to freedom of religion.”
Lawyers for Christian Horizons argued in court that the OHRT ruling was in error because the tribunal failed to understand the fundamental Christian mission of the social service agency and ruled against them because their service is not given only to Christians and does not involve Christian indoctrination.
“The mission is to serve, not to indoctrinate,” lawyer Adrian Miedema told the court. “It does not mean the exception should be denied because you don't teach Christian principles.”
Lawyer Barbara Grossman told the court that the ruling creates an untenable situation where Christian Horizons would be forced to either refuse to help people who are not Christians or cease being a religious organization.
“Did the tribunal intend to put these groups out of business because they care for those of other faiths?” she asked.
Don Hutchinson, Vice-President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and Director of the Centre for Faith and Public Life (CFPL), said the case has nothing to do with sexual orientation, but rather the ability of a recognized religious community to define its own beliefs, practices and standards of membership.
“Aside from the fact that the complainant in this case has expressed same gender attraction, the case has nothing to do with sexual orientation. The situation Ms. Heintz found herself in would have occurred if she had been involved in a heterosexual relationship outside of marriage, substance or resident abuse, or any other potential violations of the Christian Horizons community's Lifestyle Policy. This case is about 'religious orientation,'” Hutchinson wrote in a commentary on the CFPL's website.
“The Divisional Court will be asked to assess whether there is a hierarchy of rights with sexual orientation superseding the religious freedom of a community united in non-discriminatory service to people with exceptional needs, as the OHRT found, or whether a religious community continues to have the right to define membership as stated by the Supreme Court of Canada prior to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Hofer case,” Hutchinson concluded.
The court will hear submissions from Egale Canada, a homosexual “rights” organization, which will act as an intervener for Connie Heintz, a lawyer from the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and lawyers for Christian Horizons.
The court will also hear from several religious interveners, including the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Canadian Council of Christian Charities.
The court case is scheduled to take place from Dec. 15 to 17, with a decision expected within six months.
See previous LSN coverage:
Huge Christian Ministry to Disabled Fined $23,000 For Rejecting Homosexual Employee
Ontario Human Rights Tribunal Ruling Denies Christian Ministry's Right to be Christian
Ontario Government Responds to Anti-Christian Ruling by Human Rights Tribunal
Christian Ministry to Disabled Drops its Code of Conduct Under Human Rights Tribunal Pressure