If you live in Ontario, you have less than seven days left to have your say on a matter that could, in future, have a serious impact on the ability of Christian ministries to hire staff who share the beliefs of the ministry. Although it may seem innocuous at first, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has undertaken a three year study of what the word “creed” means as it pertains to the Ontario Human Rights Code. They have raised the possibility of redefining ‘creed,’ which has always been defined in terms of religious belief, to include “ethical veganism,” “pacifism,” and “humanism.” The larger concern, as previously announced, is that the OHRC have raised questions about whether Christian charities should be able to require any particular personal conduct of their employees outside of the work environment. You can have your say on this matter by going to the OHRC’s survey at: https://fluidsurveys.com/surveys/ohrc-3/human-rights-and-creed-survey/. This survey will be taken down from the website on Wednesday, October 16, so now is the best time to fill it out – while you still have a chance. This is an important survey and it requires a careful response.
Redefining “creed” is not a course of action the OHRC should take because:
1. Most importantly, redefining “creed” to include non-religious beliefs will diminish the protection given to religious groups. In short, redefining “creed” to include “ethical veganism,” “pacifism,” “humanism,” and the like, caters to a very individualistic view of religious freedom and does not take into account the communal nature of religion.
2. There are other ways the OHRC can reach its objective in preventing discrimination on those other “isms” such as having the legislature create another ground of protection (for example, “conscience”) that would not require a redefinition of “creed;”
3. Redefining a specific term in the Ontario Human Rights Code is the work of the democratically elected legislature and not an appointed bureaucratic body that administers the law.
Religious Communal Rights May Be Diminished
The word “creed” has a long historical meaning that should be retained. When we hear the word “creed,” we are mindful of the Apostle’s Creed (390 AD) and the Nicene Creed (325 AD). The word comes from the Latin “credo” meaning, “I believe.” A creed is a statement of what “I believe.” It is what I believe about the nature, purpose and meaning of life. So in one sense it is individual, but in another it is communal.
These ancient creeds were created by the Christian community to express their shared religious understanding of their relationship with God and His Son, Jesus Christ. They outline the essentials of the community’s understanding – the basic foundational premises upon which they built their culture.
Back in 1962, when the Human Rights Code was first given legislative approval, the word “creed” was chosen for good reason. The coming into force of the Human Rights Code on June 15, 1962, came with an intellectual and historical context that shaped the public debate and discussion. Less than twenty years before, hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform returned from the bloody battlefields of Europe. The Jewish holocaust was etched on the national psyche. In 1945, the Ontario Court in the Drummond Wren case held that it was against public policy to restrict the sale of land on the basis of race and religion. In that case, the deed transferring land said, “Land not to be sold to Jews or persons of objectionable nationality.” The Ontario court simply could not tolerate the discrimination against the Jewish people which, “…lends poignancy to the matter when one considers that anti-Semitism has been a weapon in the hands of our recently-defeated enemies, and the scourge of the world.”
The point here is that the sufferings of the Jewish people played a huge part in the public conscience of Ontario to establish a Human Rights Code to begin with, and the word “creed,” aptly captured both the individual and communal religious beliefs and practices of such minority groups.
The Meaning of Words Matter
Changing the meaning of creed from what we, as a civilization, have known it to be for millennia is problematic. We need our words to have a distinct meanings, otherwise we become confused by the imprecise definitions and our ability to communicate is compromised. The word “creed” should not be stretched beyond its long historic meaning. Otherwise it is unfair, unjust, and in my opinion, untruthful. James Davison Hunter, To Change The World, p. 206, says it well,
“…[W]hen the objectified and shared meaning of words is undermined, when we no longer have confidence that words signify what we thought they signified, then it is possible to impute any meaning to words one desires. And if words can mean anything, then they have no intrinsic meaning or at least no possibility of a common meaning. They only mean what we say they mean. There are no fixed points of reference. What is more, there is no authority that can be appealed to in order to definitively establish the meaning of words or to adjudicate which meaning is more truthful or better than another. God? Nature? Science? Democracy? Tradition? None of these sources of authority can be trusted because each one exists under the same questioning gaze – they too are words that have been emptied of meaning.”
We Risk Losing Communal Rights
Including “ethical veganism, pacifism or humanism” as “creeds” would be intellectually dishonest. The fundamental problem is that a redefinition as contemplated by the OHRC would change the way courts will look at communal rights or associational rights of religious groups. The reason is simple – “ethical veganism, pacifism or humanism” are first and foremost clearly individual characteristics. They do not evoke understandings of community in the same way that a Christian denomination does. While a Christian faith community may have individual members who are “ethical vegan” or “pacifist,” they are not brought together because of those characteristics. Rather, such communities come together because of their religious ties. That is to say, religious in the sense of their common understanding of their relationship to the Divine, the object of their worship.
The ethical vegans, pacifists and humanists are not brought together by their worship of the same deity – they come together because of a common singular concept – not eating meat, not killing, not believing in a god. The religious groups, on the other hand, have a broad understanding of their place in the world based on their understanding of their respective place before the deity. Their religious beliefs are comprehensive, and not restricted to a single issue. They guide their every aspect of life.
For example, the fact that a person is a pacifist will not be the motivating factor in establishing a soup kitchen. However, a person within the Judeo-Christian religious belief system will see that a soup kitchen is directly related to the teachings of Christ to love one’s neighbour (Matt. 25:35 and Isaiah 58).
Why Not Use Another Term?
I do see the wisdom in protecting individuals who are ethically vegan, or pacifist, or humanist, but they should be protected based on their own merits instead of equating them to religious belief. Rather than arbitrarily changing the definition of “creed” to mean something more inclusive, the best solution would be to add to the Human Rights Code another word that will allow more inclusivity such as “conscience.” “Conscience” is already used in the Canadian Charter and seems like an obvious solution. In other words, open up another category such as a “deeply held ethical self-understanding” or words to that effect. Words matter, and we should not be reinventing meanings of long established understandings.
Redefinition Requires A Public Debate
Standard political philosophy of the West requires law to be changed by democratically elected officials who are granted authority to make law. Democratic governance is divided into three major spheres – the executive (which translates to the premier and prime minister with their respective cabinets); the legislature; and the courts. The legislature is the place where public policy is debated on the floor of the house and in its committees.
The OHRC is a bureaucratic arm of the executive. Legally, it does not have any jurisdiction to make law. Rather, it enforces the Human Rights Code on behalf of the premier and her government. However, in practice it effectively does indirectly make, or at least shape, law because the OHRC has taken upon itself the role of developing Human Rights Policies which the courts tend to follow. These policies are the commission’s current interpretation of the law, but they are, in its own words, “cutting-edge and innovative interpretations.” “They open up possibilities for expanding the protections of the Code, address new and emerging human rights issues and trends, incorporate international perspectives on human rights….”
Though the OHRC policies are not law – they are “given great deference” by the courts. In other words, the courts and the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario will be inclined to follow the OHRC interpretation of the law on any given human rights case. The courts justify their deference because they respect all of the work that the OHRC puts into its policies. It is no small feat – it takes years to develop these policies. Once the OHRC decides, based upon its experience, the complaints they receive, etc. that a particular area such as “creed” needs to be studied, it starts a four step process.
1. It determines the current law. Lawyers and legal academics are brought together to discuss the state of the law.
2. Academic and social science research is conducted on the issue to “identify historical factors, changing perceptions and understandings of terms and concepts, and alternative approaches to addressing and resolving concerns.”
3. The OHRC conducts public consultation with a number of stakeholders such as employers, unions, public and private service providers, human resource professionals, community groups, advocate, lawyers, academics, and governments. These groups may be brought into focus groups to test the draft policies.
4. Once approved, the policies are then promoted to the public. “Promotion is critical to raising public awareness and for ensuring that a policy is a vital force that influences society, tribunals, and courts.”
The fundamental problem with this process is that there is no large open public debate during the incubation stage of the policy development. The general public will not hear of what is going on until the policy is already completed and marketed to the public. Any criticism that the process is not public would be deflected by OHRC’s claim that it undergoes a long consultative process in developing policy. Further, criticism would be countered that this process is more in depth than a legislative process would ever be.
However, the fact remains that this process is highly susceptible to advocacy groups that have an agenda to change public perception. It is much easier to gain the ear of the academia and the professional class than to try to convince the public at large. For example, there is a common perception amongst the cultural elites that religion must only deal with what they call “core” matters such as beliefs, worship and symbols. These elites stress that any time religious practices come into the public sphere there must be limits. They argue, for example, that religious groups are not dealing with “core” religious matters if they are running a nursing home or a school. It is not “core” only because they say it is not core and have the influence to convince others in the elite classes that this is so. However, for those of us in the Christian religion – we who have been running nursing homes, schools, and many other ministries for the poor, for at least fifteen hundred to two thousand years – these activities are very much core to our faith.
Any redefinition of “creed” needs to be debated in open and public forums such as the legislature because the changes being proposed as to how we, as religious communities, maintain our religious identity require more than a focus group for discussion.
Broadening the definition of “creed” would weaken the communal understanding of religion in both the legal realm and the public forum. This is because protecting non-religious sentiments using “creed” limits our ability to make clear distinctions as to what we mean by religious belief and gives the perception that religious belief is only concerned with individual autonomy, when in reality religious belief has both individual and communal aspects.
A simple solution is to amend the Human Rights Code to include the word “conscience.” That will protect the individual conscientious positions of the ethical vegan, pacifist or humanist and will leave “creed” to mean what it has always meant – a religious belief of the individual and the community.
Given that diversity and multiculturalism are the mantra of our age, if they are to have any real meaning, they must mean that religious individuals and religious bodies be permitted to follow their understanding of morality and self-identity based on creed. We are all living on the same real estate and we need to respect each other. We must not be forced to comply in matters that go contrary to our core beliefs. Respect also means that we may have to respectfully, with grace, disagree at times without being punished for doing so.
1. Drummond Wren,  O.J. No. 546.
2. Drummond Wren, at para. 20.
3. Irwin Cotler, “Jewis NGOs and Religious Human Rights: A Case Study,” in John Witte, Jr., Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective: Religious Perspectives, (The Hague: Kluwer Law, 1996), p. 258-259.
4. Shaheen Azmi, “Addressing Competing Human Rights Claims: The Policy Approach of the Ontario Human Rights Commission,” in Shaheen Azimi, Lorne Foster, & Lesley Jacobs, Balancing Competing Human Rights Claims in a Diverse Society, Institutions, Policy, Principles (Toronto: Irwin Law, 2012), p. 98.
5. Shaheen Azmi, p. 99.
6. Shaheen Azmi, p. 102.
7. Shaheen Azmi, p. 103.
8. Shaheen Azmi, p. 104.