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So I’ve always wondered… Can faith-based organizations restrict their hiring to employees of their own faith?

Many faith-based organizations hold that hiring based on faith is necessary to carry out their missions. Few would disagree that churches need Christians, just as Synagogues need Jews, and Mosques Muslims for their work. However, the issue becomes controversial when these organizations are government-funded.

Differences of opinion on the issue of hiring individuals of a specific faith or lifestyle have taken the spotlight recently, both in the U.S. and Canada. Take the example of Connie Heintz, which was reported in The National Post in December of 2009. Heintz started working with Christian Horizons, an evangelical charity, in 1995. Alongside all other employees, Heintz was required to sign a lifestyles and moral code, which prohibited homosexual relationships. In 2000, Connie Heintz came out as a lesbian to her coworkers, and was subsequently dismissed by Christian Horizons.
As a self-identifying evangelical, Heintz has struggled with the acceptance of her sexuality over the years, but reports to have personally reconciled her faith and sexuality. Therefore, Heintz felt that she had no problem fulfilling her duties for the charity.
Connie took the issue to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. The court ruled in favor of Heintz, and found that a religious group could only form a religious code of conduct when providing services to coreligionists. Christian Horizons provides services to people of all faiths or of no faith, and therefore had no basis for firing Heintz on account of her beliefs or lifestyle choices.
This past May, however, an appeals court overturned this decision. In Connie Heintz’s specific case, the higher court agreed that her responsibilities were not affected by Heintz’s lifestyles choices. Although the court favored Heintz keeping her job, they also ruled that the religious identity of Christian Horizons could not be separated from their work. This ruling more broadly indicates that faith-based organizations like Christian Horizons in Canada can continue to restrict their hiring to employees of their own faith, if they feel it will benefit their mission to do so.
Heintz’s situation at Christian Horizons is an interesting example of how complicated managing individuals who identify with many different communities can be. On the one hand, the employer felt that Heintz’s personal lifestyle choices directly conflicted with the organization’s identity as a Christian Charity. On the other hand, Heintz felt that neither Christian Horizons nor any other organization had a right to deem Heintz a “non-Christian” just because of her sexual orientation.  Then, of course, there’s always the third party: the individuals receiving the care. Were the elderly and disabled individuals that Heintz was working with aware of her sexual orientation? If so, were those individuals comfortable with or perhaps threatened by her personal lifestyle choices? This case is just one example of the multilayered questions that can arise for all parties involved in our diverse and changing workplaces.