Religious Hiring Struggles in Canada

An Ontario court in mid-May, 2010, answered the question, Is religious hiring by religious social-service organizations in Ontario legal or not legal? with the puzzling answer: Yes! This is the second decision involving the evangelical organization and, while better than the first decision, is a muddled outcome that leaves faith-based organizations vulnerable.

The case concerns Christian Horizons, an evangelical faith-based organization that runs residential homes for severely disabled people. It serves the disabled without regard to religion, but requires staff to be Christian in belief and conduct. A decade ago, an employee, despite the conduct code, entered into a homosexual relationship, was dismissed, and appealed her dismissal to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

The Tribunal’s ruling, in 2008, was pernicious: religious hiring standards could be maintained only by those religious organizations that only serve fellow believers. Churches, which mainly serve their members, can insist that employees be Christian. But parachurch organizations who serve all who are “neighbors”–anyone needing help–are not free to insist that their employees must be faithful believers.

The Ontario Divisional Court in Toronto reversed the Tribunal’s unfortunate decision, but its own decision was odd. The Court acknowledged that it was because the Christian Horizon staff were committed believers that they served everyone without regard to religion. The religious conduct policy was neither paradoxical nor illegal. However, the Court added, because the dismissed woman had not been employed to engage in specifically religious activities, such as evangelism, Christian Horizon was not justified in holding her to the religious standard.

In other words, the organization is free to operate a religious employment policy if it so chooses–except that the government may intervene and say that the policy should be restricted to only some job positions. This is an illogical and pernicious decision. It should be the faith-based organization, not the government—not Caesar—that decides whether and in what way a religious qualification is important for positions in the organization.

Religious hiring is defensible—and vital—for religious organizations because of the importance to every organization of having a staff that actively helps the organization achieve its mission. But if so, then the religious organization should be able to determine that religious hiring policy. The court’s decision, instead, is essentially this: The religious organization is free to hire by faith except where it is not free to do so. This is muddled and wrong.