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Religious Tolerance logo

1998: Gay Teacher Wins Major
Civil Rights Case in Alberta, Canada

Part 2

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This topic continues here from the previous essay

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Reactions to the Supreme Court's decision:

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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..."

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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 the population."

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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."

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Marg Nausworthy, president of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in Metro Toronto said:

"It 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."

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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).

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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.

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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 of opposition.

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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.

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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."

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Rev. Bruce Miller, minister of the Robertson-Wesley United Church in Edmonton, Alberta said:

"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

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Not Withstanding...

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:

bullet fundamental freedoms of religion, speech, the press, free assembly and association, or
bullet 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.

The Quebec 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.

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Curious Aspects to this Case:

The media has consistently ignored a number of significant aspects in the Vriend case:

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet

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 Rhebergen, their vice-president of administration, said:

"We maintain that there are occupational requirements at King's, and at other Christian schools as well."

Christian 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.

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Further Developments:

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."

The Premier 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."

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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.
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Some related essays and sections on this web site that may interest you:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Newfoundland Rights Passed", News Planet, 1997-DEC-10. See: http://www.planetout.com/
  2. "LGBT discrimination table," Wikipedia, as on 2017-JUL-12, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
  3. The decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal in "Vriend v. Alberta" is at: http://www.egale.ca/
  4. Pozezan | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images
  5. "US court ruling boosts approval of same sex marriage in Canada," Forum Research, 2016-JUL-03, at: http://poll.forumresearch.com/

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Copyright © Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Content originally posted during: 1998
Latest update: 2017-JUL-16
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