Divisional Court Confirms Christian Employer can Benefit from Human Rights Code Exemption

Christian Horizons is an organization created in 1965 that ministers to developmentally disabled persons in an Evangelical Christian Environment. However, it serves people regardless of their faith.

Connie Heintz was employed by Christian Horizons as a support worker. As part of her employment contract, she was required to sign a “Lifestyle and Morality Statement” (“the Statement”). The Statement explicitly prohibits employees from engaging in homosexual relationships, stating that they are inconsistent with the traditional Christian values of the employer.

Heintz later entered into a same-sex relationship. In April 2000, she divulged the relationship to two co-workers and admitted the relationship to her supervisor when she was asked about it.

Following a harassment complaint by a co-worker in June 2000, Heintz was issued a disciplinary letter. Heintz met with her employer in July in regards to the letter but, in August 2000, went on medical leave due to stress. She resigned from her employment in late September, 2000.

Heintz brought a complaint under the Ontario Human Rights Code (the “Code”) against Christian Horizons, alleging that she had been discriminated against on the basis of her sexual orientation and that she had been exposed to a poisoned work environment.

In the decision of the Human Rights Tribunal, released in April 2008, the Tribunal ruled that Christian Horizons could not benefit from the exemption under section 24(1)(a) of the Code, which exempts certain organizations from the prohibition of discriminatory hiring practices. The exemption applies to organizations primarily engaged in serving the interests of a minority, provided the discriminatory practice can be justified as a bona fide occupational requirement (“BFOR”) of the job. The Tribunal also upheld the allegation that she had been subjected to a poisoned work environment and ordered damages as well as remedies relating to Christian Horizons’ policies and procedures.

On appeal to the Ontario Divisional Court, Christian Horizons argued that the Tribunal’s ruling should be overturned, and alleged that the Tribunal erred in concluding that Christian Horizons did not benefit from the exemption. Given that support workers are the “face of the organization”, Christian Horizons argued that strict adherence to the Christian code of conduct was in fact a BFOR of the job.

In order to benefit from the exemption under section 24(1)(a), Christian Horizons had to establish that it met three essential criteria:

(1) that it is a “religious organization”;

(2) that it is “primarily engaged in serving the interest of persons identified by their creed and employs only people who are similarly identified”; and,

(3) that religious adherence is a reasonable and bona fide requirement due to the nature of the employment.

The Court found that the Tribunal had erred in the way it applied the test, and explained that the language of 24(1)(a) requires an analysis of the nature of the activity the organization is engaged in and a determination as to whether it is seen by the organization as a fundamentally religious activity. The Court found that Christian Horizons did in fact benefit from the exemption under section 24(1)(a) of the Code.

In regards to the third criteria, however, the Court agreed with the Tribunal that abstinence from same-sex relationships was not a BFOR for the job. Christian Horizons had failed to prove that the requirement was necessary to the position.

The Court upheld the damages awarded, but modified some of the public interest remedies that had been accorded by the Tribunal. The Lifestyle and Morality Statement may continue to be signed by Christian Horizon employees; however, it may no longer contain a prohibition of same-sex relationships.

It is obvious that the Divisional Court took a broader approach to the application of section 24(1)(a) of the Code than the Tribunal. The Court stated that the Tribunal’s narrow interpretation could result in an “absurd result,” and could restrict a religious group, with the goal of ministering to the public, from restricting its leadership to those of similar faith.

While employers can in some cases benefit from the exemption under s. 24(1)(a) of the Code even if they serve a diverse clientele, the three criteria outlined by the court must still be met. If belonging to a certain gender, race, religion, etc., is not a BFOR, the exemption will not apply.