The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) recently found that a Christian Evangelical school that refused to admit the adopted son of a same-sex married couple did not breach the Ontario Human Rights Code.

What Happened?

A married lesbian couple wanted to enroll their adopted child in a privately owned and operated Christian school. Both parents identify as Christian, having been raised in the Evangelical and United Church, respectively.

The parents were looking to enroll their child into something more than a daycare, and were seeking a program that would help prepare him for kindergarten. It was important for them that the program be in a Christian school and provide a religious educational environment.The family lives in a rural area and the only preschool program they could find that suited their needs was one offered by the school in question.

The school rejected the child’s application for admission on the basis that the school had a long-established biblical stance against same-sex marriage and that if the child were allowed to attend, his attendance would violate the school’s values, as outlined in its handbook of Core Family Values and Lifestyle Policy.

The parents argued that their child was denied the opportunity to be admitted to the school’s preschool program because the parents were same-sex. They filed three applications with the HRTO claiming:

  • Discrimination with respect to services;
  • Discrimination on the basis of sex, creed, family status, and marital status; and
  • Discrimination on the basis of family status and association with a person identified by a prohibited ground.

Impact on the Family

The parents testified about the impact of the school’s actions on their family, and on their child in particular, arguing that they felt that their son had been “set back” in terms of development and that he would have benefitted from the exposure to Christian teachings.

Both parents testified that the rejected admission felt like a “kick in the teeth” and that they had not experienced such discriminatory behavior in a very long time. They further felt responsible for their child being affected by their choices, and that their child was being treated differently due to other people’s beliefs.

Response of the School

The school claimed that it was a “special interest organization” and that it has not infringed on the parent’s right to equal treatment in services. The school also argued that it is a Christian institution primarily engaged in serving the interests of those individuals identified by a particular creed, and that it is entitled to restrict participation to parents who “subscribe to its creed”.

The school cited a number of legal authorities that recognize the right of a religious community to “determine its own religious and moral identities” and to “set behavioural standards for its members”.

The Decision

Vice-Chair Khurana noted that the Code contains an exemption for “special interest organizations” under s. 18, and that the school could rely on it as a full defense to what would otherwise be considered discrimination.

The Vice-Chair acknowledged the parents’ argument that admitting their child would not interfere in any significant way with the school’s ability to carry out its mission. In the parents’ view, s. 18 was intended to create safe spaces for groups and to permit Christian schools to focus on Christianity, and was not intended to create a loophole for “corporate discrimination” to exclude a child from the school based on the sexual orientation of that child’s parents.

The adjudicator noted, however, that while the parents in question did not object to their child learning about a view of marriage that was different from their own, the other parents who chose to send their children to the school did do because they shared a set of subjective beliefs sincerely rooted in their faith. To obligate the school to admit a student whose parents did not share those beliefs would encroach on the rights of parents served by that school to practice their religion and creed.

The adjudicator further noted that s. 18 was intended to provide an exemption for religious organization where they are primarily engaged in serving the interests of their religious community.

She concluded by saying:

The school has a well-defined and specific set of creedal beliefs, mission statement and mandate. The [school’s] evidence was clear that the school requires all parents to share these values if they are considering the school for their family. While I empathise with the parents’ feelings of unfairness that their child would not be admitted, the respondent made no secret of its beliefs and was up front that it may not be the right fit for every family.

Lessons Learned

In this case, as in many human rights cases, a balancing of competing rights and interests was necessarily undertaken. While surprising to some who read the decision, the Vice-Chair ultimately emphasized the importance of protecting the less prevalent views of the school over those of the parents in question, stating:

…the school’s views may not be popular and may not even reflect the views of the majority of Ontarians. This, however, is not a reason to remove this protection for adherents of the school’s creed, and may in fact be a reason to guard it.

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