A Northwest Territories landlord who cited his religious beliefs for refusing to rent to a gay couple must pay a monetary judgment of $13,000 for his actions.
This case hinged upon whether Canada’s human rights protections trump an individual’s freedom of religion.
In a carefully crafted legal decision, an adjudicator for the NWT Human Rights Adjudication Panel briefly alluded to a possibility that religious practices might be seen as justification for discrimination, but stopped short of finding that justification in this particular case.
While there may have been a way for the landlord in this case to avoid both hardship on the tenants and legal liability initially, the landlord did not choose a path of reconciliation, but rather acted with a degree of wilfulness that justified an award of punitive damages. For example, after deciding to repudiate the lease, the landlord refused to return the rental deposit to the two men with whom he had entered into a written lease agreement.
The landlord was also accused of threatening the sister of one of the men. She leased the downstairs apartment in the same house and became fearful that the dispute with her brother would prevent the landlord from renewing her lease, leaving her and her son without adequate housing.
Before the landlord realized two male applicants to his rental property were a gay couple, he executed a lease agreement and accepted a rental deposit. Once he discovered the men were homosexuals, he tore up the lease and threw it in the garbage, an act he believed would absolve any liability. In the meantime, the men surrendered their previous home in anticipation of their move. The landlord did not communicate to the men that the rental would no longer be available. Instead, he advertised the rental, and subsequently rented it out to someone else. It was only by a coincidence that the men found out before their move-in date and realized they were homeless.
Relying on friends for a period of time, the men were later able to secure another rental, but not for the same price. At the time, the Yellowknife vacancy rate for rental premises was very low.
The landlord felt that the men should have told him of this relationship. He was fearful of what might happen to him because of his relationship with “his Lord”. He also said to the sister that having the men in the same house as her son was inappropriate, and threatened to terminate her lease when it came up for renewal.
The men were successful with an application for breach of a residential tenancy agreement before the Northwest Territories Residential Tenancies Officer. They obtained compensation, including return of their two week deposit of $1125.00.
All parties agreed that it was the sexual orientation of the applicants that prompted the landlord to repudiate the lease. The question for the tribunal was whether this act was justified because of religious beliefs that condemn homosexuality as immoral. The landlord stated that he feared that God would “put hardship on him” in life and harsh judgment at death.
The landlord referred to the Canadian Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, specifically to where they refer to the “supremacy of God” and to “freedom of religion”. He argued that “God’s word and the supremacy thereof” along with his constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion trumped the Complainants’ right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation.
He also directed attention to certain excerpts from the King James Bible (the “Bible”) and from the Way of Life Encyclopedia of the Bible & Christianity, 4th ed. (the “Encyclopedia”) which suggest that God is strongly against same-sex relationships.
However, the adjudicator writes, ” In my view the first step toward accommodating the Complainants’ needs in this case would have been for the Respondent to communicate with them, express his concerns to them, explore alternative living arrangements, possibly apologize for any inconvenience, offer to return the paid rent and offer to assist them with finding other accommodations. Such steps have been found appropriate, for example, in circumstances where a religious institution institution chose to renege on a contract to lease their hall for the purpose of celebrating a same-sex marriage.”
“The speed with which he decided to put the rental premises on the market and the many, many opportunities he had for communication with the Complainants betrays the suggestion that he gave any thought to engaging in a dialogue or discussion with the them,” despite the fact that the landlord had already made up his mind to deny the men tenancy they had bargained for.
The Human Rights Act states that to establish a bona fide and reasonable justification for discrimination, the landlord had to “accommodate” the needs of the applicants to the point of “undue hardship”. To “accommodate” in the human rights sense means adapting or adjusting circumstances so that people with a protected personal characteristic ( in this case, “sexual orientation”), will not suffer any harm and their need (in this case, for living accommodation) will be met.
The landlord claims he would have helped the men “find something… if they had agreed to walk away” from the Lease. “In other words, the Respondent wanted to ensure that any rights the Complainants’ had under the Lease were erased before he would assist them.” Further, he never returned the two weeks rent paid by the Complainants until ordered by a Rental Officer. “He held onto monies that he should have known may have been needed by the Complainants’ to secure other living accommodation.”
“Given his failure to inquire into the accommodation needs of the Complainants, much less take any steps to actually accommodate those needs, I do not see how I can find that he was in a position of “undue hardship”, the adjudicator continues.
Further, the tribunal found nothing in the evidence, including in the Bible and Encyclopedia excerpts the landlord filed, to the effect that he would suffer such harm if he did anything to help, that is, to accommodate the men in finding other housing. Indeed the landlord’s own evidence was he might have been willing to do something to help them find living accommodation if there was a bargain struck so that he could avoid liability.
The adjudicator goes on to make the point that while the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of conscience and religion, it also demands people be treated equally before and under the law and not be discriminated against on the grounds of “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability”. Most importantly, the Charter makes all rights and freedoms subject to “reasonable limits”. “In other words: the right to freedom of religion is not unlimited.”
“Freedom means that, subject to such limitations as are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others, no one is to be forced to act in a way contrary to his beliefs or conscience.” One’s religious beliefs cannot “violate the dignity or rights and freedoms of others”, for instance discriminating against gay people.
Having found that the landlord discriminated against the men, that the actions were not justified, and were carried out with wilful intent to harm, the court awarded compensatory damages of $5,000 each, half of what the men had requested, and punitive damages of $1,500 each.
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