The Right to Discriminate?

Fired or not fired?  I am not sure that is exactly the question.   A private catholic school for girls in Vancouver has stopped a lesbian music teacher from teaching after complaints from parents that she might influence her students.

The school, Little Flower Academy, denies firing Lisa Reimer.  They say that they have just stopped her from teaching.  But, they haven’t fired her, because they are still paying her until her contract expires in June.

A clever way around a human rights complaint?  Or a reasonable accommodation of the rights of folks on both sides?

Here we go again.   Religious folks discriminating against gay folks.    Religion against equality rights is going to be a conflict with us for a long time.  There are all sorts of borders and boundaries to test.  Freedom of religion is a real right, and we are going to have to figure out how it balances with the right of gay folks to equality. So, what about rights here?  Sounds pretty much like straight up discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which is prohibited by provincial and federal human rights codes.

But, many of these codes provide some special protections for religious institutions.  For example, if there is bona fides occupational qualification, then its okay to discriminate.  Or, if the organization is primarily religious or educational, then it is sometimes okay to give preference to its own members.  Sometimes, it seems that it is okay to exclude folks based on the fact that they do not hold the same religious beliefs.

What about Lisa Reimer and the Little Flower Academy?

Is being straight a bona fides occupational qualification for a music teacher at a catholic school?   Probably not.  But, can the school claim that it is entitled to only employ folks that hold the same religious views?  Maybe.

The British Columbia Human Rights Code provides the following exemption in section 41:

(1)    If a charitable, philanthropic, educational, fraternal, religious or social organization or corporation that is not operated for profit has as a primary purpose the promotion of the interests and welfare of an identifiable group or class of persons characterized by a physical or mental disability or by a common race, religion, age, sex, marital status, political belief, colour, ancestry or place of origin, that organization or corporation must not be considered to be contravening this Code because it is granting a preference to members of the identifiable group or class of persons.

There is one more complicating  part.  The school is a private school.  But, it receives public funding.  Should public monies mean public laws and accountability under human rights norms?

Or does religious freedom mean that we need to respect the religious beliefs of those who believe what they believe about homosexuality? And shouldn’t teach their children?  Is this offensive? Well, sure.  And it wouldn’t be legal in the public schools.   But, religious institutions are a whole other ball of wax.

There is a case pending before the Alberta Human Rights Commission.  Jan Buterman, a transitioning trans man, was removed from the substitute teacher list of a Catholic school board.  According to the school officials, changing genders was against Catholic belief.    Buterman has filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.

I worry that equality rights advocates have a tendency to give short shrift to freedom of religion, to assume that equality rights should always properly trump religious rights.  I am not so sure.   The next few years of litigation are going to see the courts making some tough balancing decisions between two very real rights.

Lisa Reimer was “fired” once the school administration realized she was a lesbian and parents began to complain.  But, they did agree to pay her until the end of her contract.   And it seems as if neither party had any intention of renewing the contract – she was filling in for another teacher on maternity leave, and she was planning on returning to the public school.   Was it discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation? Absolutely.  Does the school have the right to do it?   Maybe.  Should it have the right to do so?  I dunno…..

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