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Taking conflicting rights to the next step – the Christian Horizons decision

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Tribunals and courts face a growing need to balance competing rights, in areas such as religion and sexual orientation. One example of this balancing act is Ontario Human Rights Commission v. Christian Horizons, a lengthy and complex case which was appealed to the Ontario Divisional Court.

Christian Horizons is a non-profit, faith-based charitable organization. It provides residential homes and care and support to more than 1,400 Ontarians with developmental disabilities, regardless of creed. This work is publically funded. Employees had to sign a “Life Style and Morality Statement.” This statement barred, among other things, “extra-marital sexual relationships (adultery), pre-marital sexual relationships (fornication), reading or viewing pornographic material [and] homosexual relationships...”

At issue was the right, based on the ground of religion, of Christian Horizons to require its employees to sign a Lifestyle and Morality statement that prohibits employees from homosexual relationships, and the right of Connie Heintz, a support worker who was in a same-sex relationship, to be free of discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment.

The Divisional Court found that Christian Horizons did not prove that avoiding a same-sex relationship was a valid occupational requirement for a support worker. It stated that, “...the support workers’ employment and the tasks they perform are not intended to infuse the residents of the homes that Christian Horizons serves with the lifestyle morals that Christian Horizons demands of its adherents.”

The Divisional Court allowed Christian Horizons to continue to use its Lifestyle and Morality Statement as a condition for employment, but with a direction to delete the discriminatory reference to same-sex relationships.

The Court also upheld the award the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario had previously ordered to compensate Ms. Heintz for lost wages, general damages and damages for mental anguish.

This case shows just how hard it is to strike a balance between competing rights – the right to be free of discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and the right of a religious organization to employ members who adhere to core faith beliefs, even when providing a secular service.

No doubt, when these steps were taken, there were some misgivings, based on a fear that such unique laws would not work. But they have worked because they are in harmony with the thinking of our people. The record of administration indicates clearly that the human rights code has won not only very wide acceptance in this province, but also is practised widely by the vast majority of our people. - Hon. Leslie Frost in the Ontario Legislature, February 14, 1961

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