Posted: April 28, 2008, 12:29 PM by Marni Soupcoff
Imagine that Mother Theresa and her Missionaries of Charity had been told that their ministry in the streets of Calcutta was, in essence, not ministry but “social work.” In order for the sisters to continue in their work, they would no longer be permitted to require that staff members share their beliefs and ministry commitment.
As bizarre as this may sound, this is essentially what a single adjudicator acting as an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal recently decided in the case of Heintz v Christian Horizons.
Christian Horizons is, and has been since 1964, a practical ministry expression of the Evangelical Christian faith. Over the decades, it has ministered to special-needs children at group homes across Ontario. Christian Horizons’ success contributed to the province’s decision to close large institutional care facilities and move to a community group-home model for the provision of services for developmentally disabled individuals. As the large institutions closed, Christian Horizons expanded to over 180 residential homes, over 2,500 employees and approximately 1,400 residents.
Maintaining the faith convictions that motivate its ministry, Christian Horizons requires its staff to agree both to its statement of Evangelical Christian belief and a “Lifestyle and Morality Statement” that was originally developed and agreed to by the directors, management and all staff. The document is based on the same Biblical understandings that form the foundation of the ministry.
In 2000, Connie Heintz, a five-year employee who had been raised and educated in an Evangelical Christian environment, confessed to Christian Horizons management that she was engaged in a continuing lesbian sexual relationship in violation of the beliefs she had held for 30 years and the agreement she had committed to in writing when joining this unique ministry. Ms. Heintz was offered counseling in her Evangelical tradition to assist her in determining whether she could return to compliance with the basic requirements of her employment. Instead, she resigned, filing a human rights complaint four months later.
As Ontario Human Rights Commission adjudicator Michael Gottheil noted, in his decision of 15 April 2008, the case goes to the “very identity and existence” of Christian Horizons.
Unlike the United States, Canada has no constitutional concept of the separation of church and state. Indeed, our nation has a constitutional, legal and practical history of recognizing religious differences and allowing them to exist peacefully. Federal and provincial governments have long provided funding for activities conducted by religious organizations for the purpose of accomplishing state goals including education, health services and, in this instance, the care of special-needs children.
At no time was the Christian identity of this ministry hidden from government funders, staff, residents or their parents. In fact, the Evangelical nature of Christian Horizons was an appealing feature to government, parents and staff in considering the needs of those placed into care. A representative from the Ministry of Community and Social Services testified that “Christian Horizons was an agency with a particular willingness and ability to accept some of the most challenging placements.”
The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal’s finding that Christian Horizons be required to abandon its statement of faith and its’ Lifestyle and Morality Statement does, as Mr. Gottheil noted, go to the very identity of this valued community partner. In falsely concluding that Christian Horizons should be treated as simply another garden-variety social-service provider rather than a group engaged in religious ministery, Mr. Gottheil pretzels his way through earlier decisions of human rights tribunals and the courts that would disagree with his conclusion.
Christian service of others is an integral extension of the Evangelical Christian faith. The attempt to sever that link is to misunderstand the nature of religion and undermine the very ethos that undergirds Christian Horizons’ expression of care and compassion for others. Ultimately, it serves to undermine the supply of loving ministry to those who would benefit most from its provision.
— Don Hutchinson is General Legal Counsel and Director, Law and Public Policy with The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.