1998: Gay Teacher Wins Major
Civil Rights Case in Alberta, Canada
Reactions to the Supreme Court's decision:
Plaintiff Delwin Vriend:
"I think it is extremely shameful that the government of Alberta
kicked and screamed and whined for the last seven years all the way to the Supreme Court
in an effort to ensure that discrimination against gays and lesbians continued..."
Paul Langevin, MLA for Lac la Biche-St. Pau said:
"Courts should not be making
decisions for politicians. They're not elected. ... Politicians --
either the provincial legislators or the federal government -- are the people who represent
Sheila Greckol, Mr. Vriend's lawyer said:
"This morning the words 'sexual orientation'
are found in ... [Alberta's] human-rights legislation. This is a glorious moment for the human rights
of all Albertans."
Marg Nausworthy, president of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in Metro Toronto said:
is the very cornerstone of a healthy democracy that there is protection for unpopular
minorities. It will be a serious violation of the principles of democracy for the
government of Alberta to ignore this decision."
R. Douglas Elliott, counsel for the Canadian AIDS Society in the Vriend v. Alberta case said:
"My message to governments that continue to discriminate against gays and
lesbians in this country is: 'We'll be back.'" (Some sources incorrectly
attributed this quote to David Corbett, director of the Foundation for Equal Families).
Dave Rutherford, host of a Calgary radio call-in show, scheduled part of his program to
this topic. As expected, callers to the show covered the full range of possible responses. They
ranged from a prediction that this ruling is the first step on a slippery slope towards
moral decrepitude. Others said it was a watershed in Alberta's growth towards a just
society. Still others were angry that unelected judges at the Supreme Court were pushing the
province around. Several listeners were particularly distressed because they feel that the
ruling will lead to schools teaching tolerance towards gays and lesbians. Many quoted the
usual passages from the Bible that are often interpreted by
conservative Christians as condemning sexually active gays and lesbians.
Richard Gregory, co-chairperson of the Coalition on Human Rights in Alberta commented that the public confuses the loudness of the anti-gay movement for universality
Hal Joffe, national chairperson of community relations for the Canadian Jewish
Congress, quoted other passages from the Bible. He mentioned that the book of
Deuteronomy urges believers to pursue justice.
Julie Lloyd, a lawyer with many gay clients, said:
"Slowly, the forced change
in behavior will change Albertans' attitudes...I hate to conclude that Alberta is a
cesspool of small minds. I prefer to conclude that the Alberta leadership has not been
doing the right thing."
Rev. Bruce Miller, minister of the Robertson-Wesley United Church in Edmonton, Alberta
"I think Christians in Alberta are going to have to do some soul-searching
and see if they are really following Jesus' ethics of love. Egalitarianism is something
Jesus was all about. Sometimes we forget that." (The United Church of Canada is
a liberal, Protestant denomination.)
Alberta, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island had been the last provincial holdouts in this area of
civil rights. In 1997-DEC, Newfoundland added sexual orientation as a protected category
under its Human Rights Code. 1 With this decision of the Supreme Court in the Vriend
case, Prince Edward Island remained the only Canadian province without civil rights
protection for persons of all sexual orientations. Their government finally passed a law protecting lesbians and gays against discrimination in 1998. 2
There exists in the Canadian Constitution a "not withstanding"
clause. Clause 33 allows the Federal or Provincial governments to opt-out of any portion
of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which deals with:
||fundamental freedoms of religion, speech, the press, free assembly and association, or
||guarantees of equality.
At the time that the Charter was introduced in the early 1980's many opposed this
provision. Former Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau called it a tainted compromise. Former
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said that it reduced the worth of the Charter to that of a
piece of scrap paper.
Theoretically, a government in Canada could invoke this clause, and define, say Wiccans,
a neo-pagan group, as having no freedom of religion or association. They could be imprisoned for their beliefs. There is not a great deal that could be done to protect them. So too, the Government of
Alberta could pass legislation that states that: not withstanding Section 15 of the Canadian
Charter of Rights and Freedoms, gays, lesbians and bisexuals will have no fundamental
rights in Alberta. They would have to declare that the legislation is in direct conflict
with the charter. They would have to renew the legislation every five years.
government has used this "not withstanding" clause to declare illegal those
advertising signs that did not meet certain size and language standards. The Alberta
government tried to introduce "not withstanding" legislation that would
have limited the rights of victims of past Alberta sterilization laws to sue for damages.
However, the public and media expressed so much contempt that the bill was withdrawn.
John Fisher of EGALE commented on the possible action of the Alberta government to
invoke the "not withstanding" clause. He said that it is a question of how low
the government will stoop -- to what length the government will go -- to abuse the rights of
gays and lesbians.
The Premier of Alberta, Ralph Kline, announced to the media on APR-3 that his
government would not seek to pass a "not withstanding" bill. He confirmed this
later in the legislature. Phone calls to government offices by the public were very heavy. Some callers
were outraged that gays and lesbians are now given equal protection under the law. Others
were pleased with the extension of equal rights to homosexuals. Still others were angry at the
activism of the Supreme Court.
Curious Aspects to this Case:
The media has consistently ignored a number of significant aspects in the Vriend case:
||It is generally presented as a civil rights case for gays and lesbians. In fact, no civil rights
law in North America at the time, to our knowledge, contained specific references to gays, lesbians, bisexuals
or homosexuals. What the laws do is extend fundamental civil rights protection to persons
of all sexual orientations. So, a heterosexual who was denied employment
or accommodation on the basis that she or he was attracted sexually to members of the
opposite gender could seek protection from their regional human rights office.
||Winning the court battle did not get Mr. Vriend his job back. He subsequently found employment as a computer technologist at the
University of Alberta.
Mr. Vriend's former employer is a Christian religious institution. Much civil rights legislation
in North America has its own type of internal "not withstanding" clause. Some contains clauses that
specifically excuse religious (and other) institutions from the requirements of the law.
They are allowed to discriminate on any basis that they wish to. For example, such laws
permit the Roman Catholic church to refuse to ordain female priests. They permit churches
to refuse to accept gay or lesbian employees. The Alberta law does not allow specifically
exempt religious institutions as does legislation in many other states and provinces. But
it allows discrimination if it is reasonable and justifiable. On 1998-APR-3, King's
College officials stated that they have the right to offer employment only to
heterosexuals, and to fire homosexuals wherever they are found. John
vice-president of administration, said:
"We maintain that there are occupational
requirements at King's, and at other Christian schools as well."
schools could argue that their religious beliefs justify their efforts to discriminate
against gays, lesbians, women, persons who deviate from the doctrinal purity of the
denomination, etc. in their staff. But they might have difficulty proving their position
in Vriend's case: he was a lab instructor in computer science -- an area of specialty that
does not have a major religious or spiritual content.
Most of the articles and programs on the Vriend case that we have seen, describe the
anger of many Albertans over what they believe is an intrusive, activist stance by the
Supreme Court. They feel that the unelected Justices of the court have hijacked some
of the responsibilities of the elected members in the legislature. But it can be argued
that this is an invalid conclusion. The Supreme Court was faced with two conflicting laws, and they had to resolve this difficulty:
Since the Charter is the superior
law, it was the provincial legislation that had to be changed. It could have been declared
unconstitutional. But then all Albertans would be without any human rights protection. The
court could have let the law stand for a few months, and order the legislature to rewrite
the law. Or they could "read in" gay and lesbian protection into the present
law. It can be argued that the "reading in" process would be less intrusive.
What the court could not do is to refuse to act, and let the previous law stand.
A campaign was started by a "number of conservative groups, including
many affiliated with the religious right persuade
Alberta's Premier Ralph Klein to invoke the "not withstanding" clause. This would
override the recent Supreme Court action and remove human rights protections for gays and
lesbians. 3 Some groups from the religious right conducted a campaign against equal
rights for gays and lesbians via radio, television and newspapers. Roy Beyer, president of
the Canada Family Action Coalition said:
"Basically, we need to appeal
to people because we feel our message is not getting out."
Their full-page ads
in two newspapers urged the Alberta government to use the "Not Withstanding"
clause Otherwise, they feel, religious freedom will be abridged and the family would be
undermined. A broadcast campaign with a similar message was launched by a Calgary
group called by the unusual name of "Alberta Civil Society Association."
Many conservative religious groups believed that by being forced to treat homosexuals equally in areas of
service delivery, employment and accommodation, that their religious freedoms are being
abridged. That is, their religious freedom of belief and assembly can be extended to include the religious freedom to discriminate against others. For example, a landlord who is a conservative Christian might believe that God
hates homosexual behavior. Thus the landlord might be inclined to refuse accommodation to a gay
or lesbian. He/she might feel that when the law compels them to extend equal treatment to
homosexuals, that they would be forced to violate their own religious standards.
Michael Phair, a city councilor from Edmonton, Alberta commented on slurs and threats
of violence that he and other homosexuals have received recently. "I've been told
that I should be shot, and other days and lesbians should be shot, that I should have
never been born and that there's no place in this province for people like me."
One caller suggested that Phair be dismembered. Police stepped up patrols in his
neighborhood. Pamphlets were placed on his car windshield which compared gay sex with
animal behavior. Others quote Biblical passages. that they interpret as condemning same-gender sexual behavior.
Murray Billett, a member of the Gay and Lesbian Awareness Society of Edmonton,
has also received angry phone calls and letters. He did not elaborate, saying he
fears for the safety of his family."
The caucus of the ruling Conservative Party met on 1998-APR-09 to discuss the matter.
Premier Klein said:
"We'll see what happens if caucus votes -- and I'm sure
that they will -- to accept the ruling [of the Supreme Court] because it is the law as it
stands today....Right or wrong, I've drawn my line in the sand. I've said personally I
feel good about it. I feel comfortable, that I will accept the ruling. I think it's wrong,
morally wrong, to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation."
said that he was sickened by some of the messages sent to his office:
"A lot of
letters are form letters. We have others writing letters that quite frankly make your
stomach churn because they're reading into this a lot more than what is there."
Sixteen law professors at the University of Alberta sent the Premier a letter
saying (in part):
"...the Supreme Court has held that the Charter entitles
persons to have their complaint of discrimination based on sexual orientation investigated
by the Alberta Human Rights Commission. 'Vriend' is about the right of access to justice."
Webmaster's comment during 1998:
Gays and lesbians have, at least temporarily, been given
civil rights protection in Alberta. Any new restriction on rights will now have the effect of
targeting a specific group in society and intentionally removing their existing rights. We
suspect that this would be a very difficult task to accomplish because of the Supreme Court's ruling.
North American society seems driven by a secular ethical system which started by
defining racism as reprehensible, then declared sexism as intolerable, and is now drifting
towards the position that homophobia is also unacceptable. If conservative religious
groups continue to deny women, gays and lesbians equal treatment, they run the risk of
being branded as bigots by people generally. Conservative Christian individuals and
groups will find that their prime mandate, the Great Commission to convert the world to a
saving knowledge of Jesus, would be increasingly impeded. The conservative wing of
Christianity (perhaps all of Christianity) will be treated as pariahs by a growing
percentage of society.
Update in 2017:
Discrimination against the LGBT community in Canada has faded over the past decade:
- During 2005, the Federal Government legalized same-sex marriage across the country.
- In 2013, the Honorable Kathleen Wynne was elected the 25th Premier of the Province of Ontario. This is a position equivalent to a state Governor in the U.S. She is the first female premier of Ontario and the first openly gay head of a provincial or federal government in Canada.
- During 2015-JUN, immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage across that country, Forum Poll conducted a poll among 1,221 randomly selected Canadian adults. They found that 70% approved of marriage equality while 22% disapproved. Quebec has reached 78% approval rating, which is probably the highest of any province or state in North America. The poll's margin of error is ±2.8 percentage points.
Some related essays and sections on this web site that may interest you:
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- "Newfoundland Rights Passed", News Planet, 1997-DEC-10. See: http://www.planetout.com/
- "LGBT discrimination table," Wikipedia, as on 2017-JUL-12, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
- The decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal in "Vriend v. Alberta" is
- © Pozezan | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images
- "US court ruling boosts approval of same sex marriage in Canada," Forum Research, 2016-JUL-03, at: http://poll.forumresearch.com/
Copyright © Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Content originally posted during: 1998
Latest update: 2017-JUL-16