How (Not) to Read Heintz vs Christian Horizons

From the Archived "Cardus Policy in Public" Series

How can faith-based ministries effectively deal with the issue of behavioural expectations for their staff?

Or, Nine Lessons From Someone Else's Experience1

Connie Heintz worked for Christian Horizons for five years, then left because of fallout from her involvement in a same-sex relationship. She filed a human rights complaint that was decided by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in 2008. That decision sent shivers up the spine of anyone involved with a Christian organization engaged in providing ministry to those in need on a non-discriminatory basis. The tribunal essentially ruled that an organization can have a statement of faith, but how it applied and in what cases was left unclear. The decision was appealed into the court system, where a panel of three judges from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice heard arguments from the parties and interveners, including The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Association of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, and the Canadian Council of Christian Charities. Their 2010 decision clarified the situation, but also created a question: How can faith-based ministries effectively deal with the issue of behavioural expectations for their staff?

Parks v. Christian Horizons (1992)2

One of my close friends was on the board of Christian Horizons when the first human rights complaints against the organization arose in the early 1990s. At that time, I was surprised that an organization established on Christian fellowship and values, with a clear statement of faith and principles, could have been considered to have inadequately articulated what it meant to live a Christian lifestyle. Initially, I was shocked that two women participating in a common-law relationship could not have known they were not living a Christian lifestyle. But I learned that a lot of Canadians assume that being Canadian (perhaps even having been baptized as an infant or attended Sunday School) was sufficient to conclude they were living life as a Christian—however self-defined.

1.The View from Outside

Perhaps the first lesson we can learn from the trials—both spiritual and legal—is that evangelical Christians must remove their Christ-coloured glasses to fully consider the requirements of Canadian law for the establishment and preservation of Christian community in, by, and for the Christian community. What may appear obvious to faith communities is less obvious to those who do not share the same worldview.

Thankfully, Errol Mendes, sitting as a one-man Board of Inquiry for the Human Rights Commission, observed that religious communities such as Christian Horizons should be capable of existing for the benefit of the broader community. In his decision, Professor Mendes carefully described how to structure the documentation for such a community. The affirmation of the Divisional Court in Parks v. Christian Horizons in 1992 should have conclusively put an end to potential future appearances before Ontario human rights hearing bodies for any ministry in compliance with the Mendes conditions. But it did not.

2. Self-Define

The second lesson follows on the first. Religious people often fail to realize it is the responsibility of each community to properly define itself—its beliefs, purposes, requirements of membership, and process for removing members who choose to violate those requirements. Christian communities—educational institutions, ministry organizations, denominations, and congregations—must not assume that by declaring themselves "Christian," the way they understand their existence or their Biblical interpretation will be determinative in employment, membership, student, or other selection issues. Communities must develop a comprehensive explanation of existence, including statement of faith and statement of lifestyle and workplace expectations, that defines what they believe, why they exist, and what they expect. These statements and definitions must be understandable by those who share the convictions of the community as well as those who do not.

This standard is in harmony with two Supreme Court of Canada decisions dealing with the Hutterian Brethren, a body of Christians who consider living in community essential to their life of faith. In 1992's Lakeside Colony of Hutterian Brethren v. Hofer, the Court set out standards for proper steps to take in regard to expulsion from a faith based community.3 Then, in 2010's Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, the Court neatly applied the principles expressed in Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem and Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers to establish a robust definition of a self-defining religious community or religious institution.4

In short, if we define who we are, what we believe, and what our behavioural expectations are, as well as the consequences for an individual who changes his or her beliefs or engages in non-compatible behaviour, and the method by which those consequences may be administered, then we will be well-prepared to stand the test of a legal challenge to our existence as a religious community. Of course, no individual or organization in today's Canada can prevent a legal challenge—but we can prepare to successfully defend one.

3. Be Prepared for Disagreement

Religious communities would be wise to equip themselves to handle disagreement, dispute, and disappointment, so as to avoid potential allegations of a "poisoned work environment" by someone who might otherwise be, or in fact is, subjected to misbehaviour by others in the community as a result of such disagreement, dispute, or disappointment.

For a variety of reasons, which one might imagine, the relationship between Ms. Heintz and her co-workers of over four years dis-integrated following her revelation of living in a same-sex relationship. We do well to be prepared in advance for the inevitable relational challenges that religious communities encounter when "one of these things is no longer like the others," to paraphrase a song from a popular children's program.

In preparation for the more than 40 days of hearings before lawyer Michael Gottheil, chair of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, Christian Horizons assembled those who could speak to the nature of their ministry. Reverend James Reese, a founder of the ministry, spoke to CH's establishment and raison d'être. Dr. Brian Stiller, former president of Tyndale University and former president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, spoke about evangelical community and expression through good works as reasonable acts of worship. Reverend Stan Cox, vice-chair of the Christian Horizons board, spoke to the contemporary expression of the ministry, and Hugh Robinson from the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services testified to the unique and valuable service provided by Christian Horizons as a ministry.

Of course, trials involve presentation by both sides, so the adjudicator also heard from Ms. Heintz, who spoke of her experience. Reverend Brent Hawkes, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto, spoke about being Christian and being homosexual. And John Cobrough, territorial director of employee relations for The Salvation Army, who was subpoenaed to speak about carrying out Christian social service without requiring all staff to share Christian belief or character.

This reveals an important pluralism in the Canadian Christian—to say nothing of broader religious—communities. Each Christian community is uniquely defined—and perhaps, from time to time, re-defined—and unique in its expectations. For example, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada has 39 denominational affiliates who represent over half of the evangelical community in Canada. Evangelicals definitely do not all look alike.

That said, one danger that many Christian ministries may encounter is the temptation to breach the sanctity of the community in order to be compassionate to someone in need, to staff an existing non-leadership position with someone who does not share the community's commitment, or to respond to available finances for staffing by not holding out for the qualified candidate who is also able to agree to the community's faith and conduct standards.

4. Define and Hold to Community Integrity

The fourth lesson is the importance of protecting the structural integrity of every aspect of the community. To do this, you must know corporately who you are and who you wish to be. Then, the community must consistently hold to the standard established. Exceptions create openings that may breach the constitution of the community.

5. Integrate and Publish Community Requirements

The fifth lesson is tied to the fourth. The leadership of a religious community must state and implement, on a person-by-person basis, the truth that existing as a religious community requires that each person must know both the importance of community and the connection of community to every single member of that community, both in what they believe and in what they do. For employers, position descriptions that do not identify the importance of shared faith and practice and genuinely connect both to the responsibilities of the individual will be insufficient. Complete descriptions will meet the requirements of the objective standard of a bona fide or legitimate occupational requirement found in Ontario and some other jurisdictions.

I was part of a large staff at a church which determined that all staff must share an understanding of faith and practice. There are several ways to accomplish this. An organization might require all staff to agree in writing to a statement of faith and code of conduct. Or, each position description—from the senior pastor to the junior dishwasher—might require the applicant to be able to share personal testimony of being a Christian, pray with others, lead another person to Christ if asked, and give directions to the washrooms or on-site restaurant. Staff at the church where I worked were equipped in these areas. Public announcements were regularly made letting all gathered know that if someone required any of the above, they could look for a person wearing church staff identification—and thus, anyone wearing a church I.D. was required to exercise those functions. And, obviously, staff also attended devotions and participated in other religious functions at the church.

6. Choose in Advance Who Tells Your Story

The sixth lesson is to make sure there are people of character and qualification who are known in advance to be able to explain the community, its purpose, and its requirements clearly and unshakeably. This will help both in confrontation and if a sounding board is needed to deal with an internal situation. These people are frequently already in your circle of contacts. Be aware of them.

7. Canada Has No Separation of Church and State

The seventh lesson for us to learn is that Canada has no developed constitutional, legal, or other doctrine of the separation of church and state, as formulated by the United States Supreme Court. Instead, Canada has a long history of cooperation between the church and the state, coupled with sound legal doctrine and definition of religious freedom. Thus, it was fairly simple for Mr. Gottheil of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal to conclude—and the Divisional Court to affirm—that, in Canada, a distinctly Christian institution could be a religious organization and receive public funding for the provision of a public service.

It is difficult to overstress the importance of Canadian Christians and Christian communities continuing to engage outside the walls of the Church—whether the congregational Church, the ministry service organization Church or the educational institution Church—in order to maintain this continuing cooperation. Failure to be involved in the community of Church and non-Church is to implicitly accept a creeping standard of confinement to a "stained glass closet," as those who oppose the Church—and all matters of public expression of religion and religiously based beliefs—advocate for the privatization of all matters related to faith. The private faith which is being pursued by those who dislike the Church and its influence would include prohibition of faith expression in public, separation from involvement in the public square, exclusion from providing faith-based non-discriminatory public service and ineligibility to receive public funding for providing service that benefits the general public. We may disagree on the Church's engagement in some of these ways, based on our own beliefs, but we can agree that those who do believe it important should be free to do so.

8. Rights Talk

The eighth lesson from the Divisional Court's decision is that we live in a society governed by the concept of "rights." Rights are granted and limited in our society, depending on a variety of circumstances. Christian communities across the country have a recognized right to exist and engage in behaviour related to the beliefs that form the foundation of their existence. Christian institutions have particular rights that permit them to engage in selective hiring, requiring their employees to agree with their mission, beliefs, and behaviours—provided the institution adequately explains the mission, beliefs, and behaviours and why they are essential to the performance of the individual's work—whether it be in a job or vocation.

Section 24 (1) (a) of the Ontario Human Rights Code5 is not a rights exemption section, but a rights granting section. Saying that Christian Horizons or other Christian institutions are somehow empowered to discriminate by the section is incorrect. The section grants rights to identified communities, including those identified by creed or religious belief, to be selective in their hiring practices without infringing on the rights of an employee or prospective employee who is not qualified under the provisions of that section.

If a candidate or employee is not qualified for the position they seek or hold, there is no infringement of rights in not employing that person. Banks, law firms, car dealerships, and grocery stores are all selective in their employment practices. Religious institutions that engage in selective employment in accordance with the provisions of section 24 (1) (a), and similar provisions in other provinces, are operating in compliance with human rights legislation, not with exemption from that legislation.

Media Strategy

This brings me to the ninth and final lesson. Throughout this process, Christian Horizons was under the media's microscope. Organizations must realize that the media are looking for a story—and not necessarily a nice story, with helpful lessons, but often a sound bite that portrays religious communities as something less than media darlings. The media might not be on your side, so assess how best to present a concise and comprehensive cooperative image to the press. Prepare your talking points, choosing your words carefully. Consider consulting with a media relations expert. Then stick to your talking points, providing your version of the story—not a defence or an explanation, but a concise reason your community exists and why you have done right, not wrong.


1. Heintz v. Christian Horizons, 2008 HRTO 22 (CanLII), 65 C.C.E.L. (3d) 218, 63 C.H.R.R. 12

2. Parks v. Christian Horizons (1992), 16 CHRR D/40 (Ontario Board of Inquiry)

3. Lakeside Colony of Hutterian Brethren v. Hofer, [1992] 3 S.C.R. 165

4. Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 S.C.R. 567, Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem, 2004 SCC 47, [2004] 2 S.C.R. 551, Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers, 2001 SCC 31, [2001] 1 S.C.R. 772

5. Human Rights Code, R.S.O. 1990, CHAPTER H.19