Does freedom of religion trump the right not to be discriminated against due to sexual orientation?
This question is at the core of a complaint before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. It involves a Christian couple, two gay lovers, and the use of a home-based bed-and-breakfast.
In a March 3, 2010, written decision that paves the way for a hearing by denying an application for dismissal, tribunal member Murray Geiger-Adams recounted the background of the dispute based on the submissions made by the parties.
Shaun Eadie and Brian Thomas wanted to book the Swan Room of the Riverbend Bed and Breakfast. The B & B is at the home of Les and Susan Molnar in Grand Forks, a community in the southern Interior. The Molnars are Protestants and evangelical Christians.
On June 18, 2009, Eadie reserved the room through a telephone conversation with Susan Molnar. A few minutes later, Les Molnar called Eadie and asked whether or not he and Thomas were a couple.
In their complaint, Eadie and Thomas stated that after hearing Eadie confirm that they were together, Les told him: “Then this is not going to work out.” Les claimed that he said: “I’m sorry, I don’t think it’s going to work out.”
“Wow,” Eadie responded and hung up. No further discussions followed. Eadie and Thomas subsequently filed their complaint.
Les doesn’t deny that he rejected the reservation because to “allow a gay couple to share a bed in my Christian home would violate my Christian beliefs and cause me and my wife great distress”.
The Molnars asserted that “our private dwelling house should have a modified standard” under the B.C. Human Rights Code “because of our religious (moral) beliefs”.
For their part, Eadie and Thomas claimed that they belong to a group protected under the code and that their sexual orientation was directly linked to the denial of their reservation at the Molnars’ B & B.
However, the Molnars believe that their actions are protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the freedoms of religion and association.
Geiger-Adams wrote that he understood the Molnars’ contention that they were “responding in good faith to their perception of what would make all their guests and themselves comfortable”, and that they didn’t intend ill will.
But he noted that “it is not a respondent’s intention, but the effect of their conduct on a complainant, which is relevant in considering whether discrimination has occurred.”
The Molnars wanted the tribunal to dismiss the complaint without a hearing. However, Geiger-Adams dismissed their application.
Citing a couple of past cases involving the conflict between religious beliefs and protection from discrimination, Geiger-Adams wrote that “balancing competing rights is a legally and factually complicated exercise, for which the Tribunal requires detailed evidence.”
One of these cases was decided by a tribunal panel in a decision released on November 29, 2005. It arose after Tracey Smith and Deborah Chymyshyn were denied the use of a Lower Mainland hall they’d rented from the Knights of Columbus. The Catholic organization did so after learning that the hall was to be used for a reception following a same-sex marriage.
The Knights argued that they opposed same-sex weddings and that this is at the core of their religious beliefs.
Ruling in favour of Smith and Chymyshyn, the panel relied on the “concept of undue hardship”.
“Although we have accepted that the Knights could refuse access to the Hall to the complainants because of their core religious beliefs, in the Panel’s view, in making this decision they had to consider the effect their actions would have on the complainants,” the panel stated in the decision.
They were not required to find another hall for the complainants but they could have offered a formal apology, immediately reimbursed the complainants, or helped them find another venue.
“This type of accommodation would not have required them to act contrary to their core religious beliefs and, according to the evidence of Ms. Smith, would have been understood by the complainants and respected,” the panel noted.
With regard to the complaint filed by Eadie and Thomas, the respondents themselves, according to Geiger-Adams’s account, acknowledged that the gay couple felt distress and anger at the way they were treated.