The anticipated decision of the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal was handed down on November 29, 2005 in the case involving the Knights of Columbus refusal to allow their hall to be uses by a homosexual couple for a celebration of their marriage. This much anticipated ruling is a ‘must read’ for those religious groups offering any services or facilities to the public. It provides guidance for the Church on a number of fronts in what seems to be the inevitable conflict between Christian beliefs and societal values.
Two women had decided to marry after same-sex marriages became legal in BC. While the actual ceremony was to take place elsewhere, they wished to hold a reception party and located the Knights of Columbus hall (situated next to Our Lady of Assumption Catholic Church in Coquitlam). While owned by the Church, the hall was run by the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic men’s association. The hall was used for a variety of events, from private gatherings to AA meetings and church related programs, and the Knights had often agreed to rent the hall to the public. The two lesbian women agreed to rent the hall for their party (although neither the Knight’s representative nor the Church knew that the party was to celebrate a same-sex marriage), and signed the rental contract and provided a deposit. But once the Knights and Church found out about the purpose of the hall rental, the couple was advised they could not rent the hall and were given their deposit back. The next day the couple found a new location for the party, and shortly after commenced proceedings under the Human Rights Code, alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
While the three-member Tribunal, after giving extensive reasons, found that the Knights had not illegally discriminated against the lesbian couple, it went on to find that the Catholic men’s group failed to take “steps that would have recognized the inherent dignity of the complainants and their right to be free from discrimination”. It was found that “the Knights could have taken steps such as meeting with the complainants to explain the situation, formally apologizing, immediately offering to reimburse the complainants for any expenses they had incurred and, perhaps offering assistance in finding another solution.” Because they failed in their duty to accommodate the complainants, undue hardship was caused to them. The Tribunal ordered the Knights to pay (in addition to certain costs of the complainants) $1000 to each of the complainants for injury to their dignity, feelings and self-respect.
The Tribunal gave carefully worded and lengthy decision in this case, which may well serve as a benchmark for other conflicts that arise between Christian bodies and those whose values conflict with them. It certainly dictated the need for Churches to have a written policy regarding the use of their facilities and how that reflects the core religious beliefs of the Church. The Tribunal’s gave good advice to be heeded by those in similar circumstances: “In these sensitive and difficult circumstances, people must approach the issues with respect even in the face of disagreement”. This ‘warning’ would seem to mirror the words of Paul (Romans 12:18); “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (NIV).
This article was written by Robert G. Kuhn, 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.