VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The Knights of Columbus have the right to be selective about the use of their catering hall, a Canadian human rights tribunal has affirmed.
But the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal nonetheless required the Knights to pay two lesbians $865 each for “injury to dignity, feelings and self respect,” and $385 for expenses incurred in changing halls.
“I have mixed feelings about the ruling,” said Terry Kidwell, past state secretary of the British Columbia and Yukon Knights of Columbus. He is a member of Our Lady of the Assumption council, which operates the disputed hall in Port Coquitlam, part of Greater Vancouver. “It's contradictory. It says we had every right to refuse them the hall. On the other hand we could have done more to accommodate them.”
The Knights’ lawyer, George Macintosh, said the requirement to pay compensation was “a mistake in law.” Under the province's human rights law, “once the tribunal decided the Knights were justified, it had no jurisdiction to rule further,” he said.
Nonetheless, added Macintosh, while no new legal ground had been broken it was still a good thing that a tribunal generally regarded as favoring homosexual plaintiffs had come out in this case upholding religious rights.
The tribunal stated that its task was to find a “delicate balance” between two equal rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom: religious freedom and the rights of sexual minorities. Quoting from an earlier ruling it said, “One cannot trump the other. The equality rights of same-sex couples do not displace the rights of religious groups to refuse to solemnize same-sex marriages which do not accord with their religious beliefs. Similarly the rights of religious groups to freely practice their religion cannot oust the rights of same-sex couples seeking equality.”
Nonetheless, after 22 closely-reasoned pages, the tribunal did decide that while the two lesbians, Deborah Chymyshyn and Tracey Smith, easily could and did find another hall, the Knights of Columbus would have had a tougher time finding a new religion. “The Panel accepts that … the Hall could only be rented and/or used for events that would not undermine the Knights’ relationship with the Catholic Church.” It then took 21 more pages to explain why the Knights owed the two women compensation.
The brouhaha began simply enough last summer, when the couple saw the hall beside (but separated by a fence from) a Catholic school and church. It was close to the lake where they planned to “wed” and bore a “for rent” sign in a window. The women arranged for a viewing, during which they failed to notice the cross at the hall's front and the pictures of various Knights of Columbus, popes and priests on the wall. Only later did they realize the renters were Catholic. They were interested only in the kitchen and availability of plates, chairs and tables. The woman showing them the space assumed the reception was for one of the pair, while the other was a helpful friend or perhaps the mother.
Only after the contract was signed and the invitations mailed out did word reach the Knights, who operate the hall for the parish and for the Archdiocese of Vancouver, that they were hosting a lesbian “wedding” reception. This news fell like a bombshell, coming as it did in the middle of a national debate over a bill before the Canadian parliament to legalize same-sex “marriages” (though several provinces, including British Columbia, were already permitting them).
The Knights quickly called the women, apologized, and explained that as a Catholic organization they could not go forward. They returned the rental fee, and when asked to reimburse the women their additional expenses, agreed to that too, but requested what Kidwell called “a standard release form.”
But this legally imposing document intimidated the women, who called a lawyer. Ultimately the matter ended up in the hands of lesbian rights advocate Barbara Findlay.
British Columbia human rights procedure calls for mediation, but what Findlay wanted was not only the modest financial compensation, but, according to Kidwell, “half-page or full-page advertisements in national newspapers in which we apologized and admitted that the Catholic Church is wrong in what it teaches about same-sex “marriage.’”
In finally finding that the Knights were justified in refusing the women but ought to have been nicer about it, the tribunal relied on several recent judgments based on the principle that religious rights offer more protection over activities the closer they come to the heart of the religion's core beliefs. A Catholic school was justified in firing a teacher who married a divorced man because teachers are supposed to model the values that the school teaches. However, a Christian printer could not refuse to print flyers for homosexual groups because printing presses have very little to do with Christian teachings.
In ordering the Knights to pay compensation, the tribunal found the organization had failed in its “duty to accommodate” the women to a degree just short of “undue hardship.” While it had apologized on the telephone, it might have arranged a face-to-face meeting and apologized formally and in writing, the tribunal suggested. And it might have helped the women find a new hall.
“They found a hall themselves the very next day so we didn't have time,” commented Kidwell.
Findlay said the main issue was that the hall was a public facility being rented to all and should not therefore be denied for religious reasons. She pronounced herself and her clients “jubilant” over the award, but also told news media that, “For gay and lesbian people, we are going to need to study the judgment in detail. It certainly appears that if the Knights of Columbus had found them another hall, the tribunal would have agreed that they could refuse the rental to my clients. So one way of characterizing it is we won the battle but lost the war.”
Kidwell termed the whole affair “a huge misunderstanding that reasonable people should have been able to resolve without going to court.” The Knights’ final legal bill was $90,000.
The British Columbia and Yukon Knights have prepared a model rental agreement and circulated it to the home office in New Haven, Conn., along with a protocol for presenting it. The agreement warns would-be renters that the organization will refuse to rent for activities that run counter to Catholic teaching.
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria,