The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada began on Tuesday defending in court the rights of religious organizations to hire people based on their religious beliefs.
In the landmark religious freedom case Heintz v. Christian Horizons, the Superior Court of Ontario will consider whether to uphold an earlier ruling that a faith-based organization involved in social work cannot require an employee to share its same religious beliefs and service commitment.
If the Superior Court does uphold the ruling, then it will significantly impact the operations and identities of churches, Christian public service organizations, denominations and higher education institutions across Canada, the EFC warned.
"Canada has a long history of accepting religious differences and allowing them to exist peacefully," said EFC Vice-President and General Legal Counsel Don Hutchinson, who noted that Canada, unlike the United States, has no constitutional concept of separation of church and state.
Federal and provincial governments have historically funded activities conducted by religious organizations that benefit the public such as ones related to education, health services and care for special-needs individuals.
"There are a variety of public service organizations, both religious and non-religious, that are selective in their employment to ensure a common motivation and to maximize the use of charitable and public dollars," Hutchinson asserted.
The current case was sparked when a former employee of faith-based ministry Christian Horizons resigned because she felt she could no longer live according to the commitment of the group's Statement of Faith and Lifestyle Policy that she was required to sign. After resigning, she filed a human rights complaint.
The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Christian Horizons, which cares for and supports over 1,400 developmentally disabled Canadians, cannot discriminate against employees because of their religious beliefs.
"This decision was shocking," said Faye Sonier, EFC legal counsel. "It's inconsistent with long-standing Supreme Court jurisprudence that clearly sets out that people of faith can choose to gather for ministry works and service – this has been confirmed as an extension of their right to freedom of religion."
For more than 40 years, Christian Horizons has cared for thousands of disabled individuals in Canada. The government of Canada has repeatedly recognized the ministry's work, which helped move the provincial-wide model of care from institutional care in favor of residential care.
As a result of its success, the ministry expanded significantly to meet the need. Christian Horizons employs over 2,500 people to provide housing, care and support to developmentally disabled individuals.
Hutchinson, who also directs the EFC's Center for Faith and Public Life, said that if the lower court's decision stands then religious ministries "will have the very foundation for their public service stripped from beneath them, forcing them to re-evaluate their ability to provide those services."
"Christian service is an integral extension and expression of the Evangelical Christian faith," the EFC legal counsel said. "To attempt to sever that link misunderstands the very ethos and motivation that undergirds the Christian care and compassion for others. What this case comes down to is the ability of a recognized religious community, that's doing good not harm, to define its own beliefs, practices and standards of membership."
The court case is scheduled to take place from Dec. 15 to 17.