Readers of this blog are well aware that many American public universities pressure religious student groups to ignore religious belief and extramarital sexual conduct in choosing their leaders and voting members. This sort of conflict between religious associational freedom and the non-discrimination agenda is unfortunately not limited to the university context or even to the United States.
Late last week, the Ontario Divisional Court held that Christian Horizons violated a national Canadian law forbidding discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation. Christian Horizons, a thoroughly and seriously evangelical Christian ministry, provides care to individuals with development disabilities, often in a residential environment. It draws its employees from among those who profess faith in Christ and who are willing to abide by its “Life Style and Morality Statement.” In the Statement, Christian Horizons expresses its disapproval of lying, deceit, theft, fraud, the use of illegal drugs, and extramarital sexual behavior (including homosexual conduct).
Christian Horizons hired Connie Heintz as a “support worker,” a position in which she would directly serve the needs of developmentally disabled individuals in a residential setting. She pledged in writing to comply with the Statement. Years later, however, she entered into a same-sex relationship. Christian Horizons offered her counseling designed to restore her to compliance with the Statement. She apparently declined, and eventually resigned.
She later filed suit, claiming that Christian Horizons discriminated against her on the basis of sexual orientation in violation of Canadian law. Christian Horizons argued that it, as a religious organization, was exempt from the ban on sexual orientation discrimination, given its doctrinal views on same-sex sexual conduct.
The Ontario Divisional Court rejected Christian Horizons’ argument, holding that it was not entitled to the religious exemption. It reasoned that Christian Horizons needed to show how participation in a same-sex relationship would concretely impede Ms. Heintz’s ability to bathe, clothe, and feed developmentally disabled individuals. The court held that Christian Horizons failed to make that showing. It held that Christian Horizons’ desire to create a thoroughly Christian environment populated by faithful Christian employees was insufficient. The court also held that Christian Horizons created a “poisoned atmosphere” for those engaging in same-sex sexual behavior.
The court ordered Christian Horizons to pay Ms. Heintz substantial money damages. It also ordered the organization to amend its Life Style and Morality Statement to eliminate the reference to homosexual conduct.
This is a deeply disturbing development, a damaging assault on religious freedom. The chief culprit is the narrowness of the religious exemption in the statute, which makes it highly difficult for a religious employer to successfully escape liability for simply maintaining its religious character through its personnel policies. This was apparently quite deliberate; the court’s opinion recounts the progressive narrowing of the exemption over time.
The primary lesson here is that the scope of religious exemptions in non-discrimination rules matters greatly. Proponents of the homosexual legal agenda often point to religious exemptions in their proposed legislation to allay religious freedom concerns. But, as this case shows, such exemptions are not necessarily adequate. Defenders of religious freedom must be vigilant, willing to get down in the details of legislative language in order to protect liberty.
In addition, we should pray that “what happens in Canada stays in Canada.”