(Un)Christian Horizons: Can Christian organizations require their employees be Christian?

Remarkably, the answer is “No”! At least not always, according to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal that recently held that a large Christian ministry in Ontario could not require their employees to sign a Lifestyle and Morality Statement that reflects orthodox teachings of evangelical Christianity.  The primary reason: because they do not primarily serve other Christians.

Christian Horizons is the largest single community living service provider in Ontario for individuals with developmental disabilities. While they started out in 1969 as a privately funded organization, they now employ over 2500 individuals, operating over 180 residential homes that provide care and support to approximately 1400 individuals. Their growth is primarily because the Ontario government decided to close its large institutions in the mid-1980’s. While they are now predominately funded by the government of Ontario, they are expressly Christian and have always made this clear to their government funders. It is their desire is to create a “Christian home environment” for the residents and many of their daily activities are centred on prayer and Bible reading.

In 1992, the staff of Christian Horizons developed a Lifestyle and Morality Statement that prohibited, among other things, “pre-marital or extra-marital sexual relationships (adultery), pornographic material, and homosexual relationships”.  Such matters were viewed as being “incompatible with effective Christian counselling ideals, standards and values.” The Lifestyle and Morality Statement applied to all employees and formed part of every contract of employment.

While a former employee of Christian Horizons signed the Lifestyle and Morality Statement when she started to work for Christian Horizons, she subsequently came to believe that she was a lesbian and began a same sex relationship. The events that followed resulted in her resigning her employment with Christian Horizons.  She ultimately filed a human rights complaint.

The adjudicator in the Christian Horizons case took a narrow interpretation of the Ontario Human Rights Code, which permits certain organizations to restrict hiring or give preference in employment to persons identified by one of the proscribed grounds of discrimination, i.e. religion, disability, etc.

The adjudicator determined that Christian Horizons was a religious organization that required its staff to “exemplify Christ, and show Christian love in all they do”.  But since their primary purpose was to “provide care and support for individuals who have developmental disabilities, without regard to their creed” they did not fall within the exemption criteria. Instead, the adjudicator determined that only if Christian Horizons primarily served other Christians would they then be able to require their employees to sign the Lifestyle and Morality Statement.  But even then this requirement had to be a reasonable qualification for the specific employment, which he determined it was not.

This is a limited view of Christian Horizons, as their primary purpose was to “provide care and support for individuals who have developmental disabilities, without regard to their creed” in a distinctively Christian manner.

This case essentially distinguishes between Christian organizations that serve their own community and Christian organizations that serve the general public. This reasoning could effectively be the death-knell for any Christian organization that wants to serve the general public in a distinctly Christian manner and believes that it needs to discriminate in their employment practices to do so. For Christian Horizons, pending any successful appeal, they are no longer legally allowed to discriminate in deciding who to employ and can longer require their employees to live in a certain way as a condition of their employment, even at their most senior levels of management.

This decision constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of the evangelical nature of the Christian religion, which effectively requires Christians to minister, witness, and serve all people, regardless of their creed, race, or sexual orientation. It could be argued that this unjustifiably infringes a Christian’s fundamental right to freedom of religion and freedom of association. Is there a difference between a church that ministers to its parishioners on Sunday and a church that ministers to the poor on Monday?

While this is a decision of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, it has broad implications for Christian employees that offer a service to the general public anywhere in Canada. Christian organizations that serve the general public must ensure that they have clearly defined their mission in a way that allows them to limit employee hiring and retention practices to those who are in sync with that mission, or risk losing their Christian distinctives. Organizations must see their mission and doctrinal distinctives reflected in each job description, answering the essential question, “why must this employee be a Christian, and live a Christian life, in order to work with us?”

This article was written by Ian C. Moes, a lawyer who practices in charity and not-for-profit law with the law firm of Kuhn LLP. It is only intended as a guide and cannot cover every situation. It is important to get legal advice for specific situations. If you have questions or comments about this case or other construction law matters, please contact us at 604-864-8877.