I get worried when everybody starts to agree with me. Orthodoxy, even when it's my own, leads to an atrophying brain. Thus the concern: it seems that the biggies are on board when it comes to giving the religious folk their right to say that homosexualists are yucky, yucky, yucky. This Xtra did here,
and a recent queer lobby group Egale press release does here,
in which the group opposes a human rights complaint filed against some bigot in Alberta.
Aaaah, but what about when the argument goes one step further? A British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal ruled yesterday, Nov. 29, that gay rights trump religious rights when it comes to renting a Catholic-owned hall to two lesbians celebrating their wedding.
It's a decision that's well worth reading.
Tracey Smith and Deborah Chymyshyn, a couple of five years, "decided to marry after same-sex marriage became legal in British Columbia, in order to take their commitment to a deeper level." The big day was Nov. 1, 2003. A few weeks before, one saw a sign on the door of a hall, and the two initialed a contract and rented the place. When they said wedding reception, the church lady didn't realize they meant they were marrying each other.
Smith and Chymyshyn both say they missed all the religious paraphernalia during their tour ("the crucifix, a picture of the ascension of the Virgin Mary, a picture of the Pope and pictures of the leaders of the Knights"), because they were focused on practical things like kitchen facilities and the number of chairs available.
Whatever. The important part is this: The hall is owned by the Archdiocese of Vancouver (the overseeing parish church is right next door, but a fence separates the buildings). And the space is administered by the Knights of Columbus: "one must be a male, a practicing Catholic, and over the age of 18. When a man becomes a Knight, he is given certain materials, including a book called These Men They Call Knights, setting out the philosophy and requirements of being a Knight. The book sets out the services and benefits available to Knights, the commitment of the Knights to the Catholic Church and its teachings, and the various activities undertaken to support this commitment." And of course the Catholic Church considers same-sex marriage -- whether the actual ceremony or the celebration thereof-- to be a Very Bad Thing.
The Knights found out -- causing some paranoia in the newlyweds, who went through their guest list trying to finger the stoolie.
Everybody, including the complainants and the three-member tribunal panel, agrees that religious beliefs are protected under the constitution, and that "discrimination" is allowed under certain circumstances. In fact, the three-member tribunal even agreed that "the Panel accepts that the function not only includes the simple dimension of renting the Hall, but that the Hall could only be rented and/or used for events that would not undermine the Knights’ relationship with the Catholic Church. For these reasons, the standard, given its purpose, is rationally connected to the function."
My initial reaction is that the decision should end there. Homos should butt out. Leave'em be.
But the problem is that the church hall appeared to be available to the public, not just to religious pals. A public service is, er, a different hall full of guests. So the tribunal went on to decide whether renting to a lesbian married couple would "cause undue hardship" to the Knights, their consciences, and their relationship to the Catholic Church. And also whether canceling caused "undue hardship" to the married ladies. Not hardship itself, as some is legally acceptable. It's the "undue" that's the issue.
The other big thing in law is "accommodation," as in, did the religious folk try to "accommodate" the lesbians in order to reduce the hardship?
The ruling notes: "In this case, the Knights could have taken steps such as meeting with the complainants to explain the situation, formally apologizing, immediately offering to reimburse the complainants for any expenses they had incurred and, perhaps offering assistance in finding another solution. There may have been other options that they could have considered without infringing their core religious beliefs. The fact is they gave no thought to any option other than canceling the rental. In the circumstances of this case, including the fact that the Hall was not solely a religious space, and the existence of the agreement between the parties for its rental, the Panel finds that the Knights should have taken these steps, which would have appropriately balanced the rights of both parties.
"Although it is true that the complainants quickly found another hall to rent, this does not answer the question of whether or not the Knights met their duty to accommodate them. Had the complainants not successfully searched for their own solution, the consequences to them would have been significant; they would have had no place to celebrate their marriage, a marriage that they had the constitutionally protected right to solemnize and to celebrate. This should not be taken to mean that the Knights were required to find another hall for the complainants, but they were required to consider whether they could assist the complainants in that process, if necessary.
"Only after the complainants sent a demand letter were the Knights prepared to compensate the complainants for the expenses they incurred but, in return, they wanted a signed release. Introducing the need for a release, although it may have been legally prudent, only served to escalate the issues between the parties.... The Knights, if they needed this legal protection, could have provided the form of the release in advance, without a meeting, and allowed the complainants to consult a lawyer, another step that would not have required them to act contrary to their core religious beliefs and may have resolved the issue between the parties."
Doing these things would not have truly hurt the Knights, but their lack did cause undue hardship to the lesbians. And this is where the Knights got smushed.
The tribunal ordered a payment of $1,000 to each of the two women, "for injury to their dignity, feelings and self-respect," plus the reimbursement of some $450 in extra wedding reception expenses.
As much as reading about this in the media got my dander up, the ruling itself is an interesting effort to slice a baby in two. Being a thoughtless idiot is one thing; pretending a signed contract didn't exist at all is another.
ADDENDUM Friday, Nov. 1: So the point I wanted to make (but as I read back, I kinda petered out) is that this is really a contract law dispute. The finding of discrimination is problematic -- these religious folk were responding to the ridiculous misunderstanding by canceling the contract, as is quite understandable. But they did behave badly by refusing to pay the extra expenses incurred (unless the dykes signed some friggin' legal crap -- screw that). So the Knights are legally liable. I just disagree with the tribunal about what they're guilty of. Not illegal discrimination, but a contract law violation.