Freedom of religion – for the employer

By Jeffrey R. Smith (jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com)

We’ve all seen cases where employees have fought for the right to assert freedom of religion with relation to their job, but what about the rights of an employer to certain religious beliefs?

Many employers try to hire people who fit with their corporate culture, but what if that culture is reflective of an actual faith, such as for a religious organization? Should it have the right to hire only people who share those beliefs?

This was the predicament for Christian Horizons, an evangelical Christian organization that operates residential homes providing care for people with developmental disabilities. The organization promoted its religious beliefs in its activities at the homes, where they had prayer meetings and other religious activities. However, residents were not required to share those beliefs to be cared for and didn’t have to participate if they didn’t want to.

Christian Horizons generally hired people who were part of the evangelical faith and required employees to sign a lifestyle agreement that reflected its values. However, things got sticky when one employee realized she was a lesbian, which was contrary to the organization’s beliefs and prohibited in the lifestyle agreement. She was eventually fired, at least in part because of the violation of the lifestyle agreement, and Christian Horizons was ordered by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal to pay the employee $23,000 in damages for discrimination and 10 months’ wages for wrongful dismissal.

Christian Horizons argued it was a religious organization and the Human Rights Code allowed exemptions from the religion grounds for discrimination for such organizations so it could hire those who share its faith. However, the tribunal ruled because it served the public and didn’t limit its services to those of its faith, it couldn’t do so in its hiring processes. The Ontario Superior Court of Justice supported the organization’s right to hire people of its faith, finding “the charitable work they do is an exercise of their religious beliefs and values,” and they didn’t need to limit the recipients to fellow believers to follow those values. However, the court upheld the tribunal’s ruling because Christian Horizons couldn’t prove heterosexuality was a bona fide occupational requirement for her position as a support worker in a group home.

So a religious organization such as Christian Horizons could potentially discriminate against someone who doesn’t share its religious beliefs, but it would have to prove those beliefs were a necessary part of the job. But where is the line drawn?

If Christian Horizons only cared for other evangelical Christians, would it have been able to discriminate against homosexuals? As another example, could a group that believes in face coverings for women refuse to hire or terminate the employment of a woman who doesn’t wear them? And how far can discrimination go if an organization qualifies for exemption from certain grounds? Can it be any faith, as long as it’s sincerely supported? Should the religious beliefs of such an employer hold the same weight as the religious beliefs of employees?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.

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