Church fight could create major firestorm

July 22, 2009

Ste. Anne’s Inn and Spa owner Jim Corcoran applied to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal for a hearing saying he faced sexual discrimination when he was removed from serving at the alter during mass at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Cobourg.

The application not only includes the church, but 12 members of the congregation and the Catholic Diocese of Peterborough. He contends a group of parishioners wrote to Bishop Nicola DeAngelis claiming he is an openly homosexual man married to another man and they threatened to cause  a scandal if the bishop did not remove him from serving, a position he held from Dec. 7, 2008 until April 19, 2009.

Normally, the inner workings of any church do not make news. However, the battle brewing over the discrimination charges are public because they are before a provincial tribunal and the repercussion of any decision could have a far-reaching affect.

But what makes this challenge more compelling are the larger questions being raised by this case. Mr. Corcoran is asking the tribunal to decide between the religious rights of the Catholic Church and its parishioners to practice their faith and adhere to their sincere beliefs or the individual rights of a homosexual not to be sexually discriminated against.

It is not the first time the tribunal faced such a case. In March 1995, a support worker at a community living residence in Waterloo, run by Christian Horizons, an evangelical Christian ministry, was fired because of her sexual orientation. The woman, who described herself as a Christian of deep faith, discovered her orientation during her tenure, after she had signed a Lifestyle and Morality agreement as part of her employment.

In its decision, the tribunal found Christian Horizons violated the woman’s right to be free from discrimination in two ways: first, by making employees sign a Lifestyle and Morality Statement; and second, by creating a poisonous work environment after she was discovered to be a lesbian.

The case is not exactly the same, since it deals with a religious organization that run a social service within the community and it was acting as an employer, not as a church or a religious body. Still, it provides a useful insight into the manner in to how the tribunal thinks when it comes to a face-off between competing religious and sexual orientation rights.

The policy position of the tribunal is clear:

“A question that has arisen in a number of cases alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation is that of when parties make competing rights claims. It should be noted that the extension of rights to one group does not itself diminish the rights of another group, and it must be established whether there is indeed a genuine conflict. If so, rights claims have been balanced based on the particulars of each case, and the understanding that no right is absolute.”

If successful, Mr. Corcoran will not only challenge the beliefs and practices of his church and his faith, but also the policies of the Ontario government. A precedent setting decision could unleash a national, possibly international, firestorm between the Catholic Church and the gay rights movement that will make the confrontation at St. Michael’s look like a tea party.

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