Trinity Western University Graduate “Religiously Harassed” and Denied Job due to Religious Beliefs
In Paquette v. Amaruk Wilderness and another (No. 4), a Trinity Western University (“TWU”) graduate was awarded over $8,500 by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal because of a company’s refusal to hire her due, in part, to her religious beliefs. The employer, Amaruk Wilderness, did not agree with some of the beliefs contained in TWU’s “Community Covenant” which provides, among other things, that students must “abstain from … sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” Amaruk made its disagreement clear in a series of e-mail messages to Ms. Paquette and its actions were found to be discriminatory.
Amaruk is a Norwegian company that offers wilderness tours. In the summer of 2014, Amaruk posted a Guide Internship position on its website and advertised minimum requirements to apply, including wilderness guide certification and backcountry experience.
The Complainant, Ms. Paquette, is a Christian who attended TWU. TWU has been the subject of widespread debate as of late with respect to the accreditation of its proposed faculty of law. That matter is currently before the British Columbia Court of Appeal and public debate is largely focused on the Community Covenant all students of TWU are required to sign. Ms. Paquette signed the Covenant and testified that she generally sought to follow it.
Ms. Paquette had some experience as a raft guide and applied for the Guide Internship position with Amaruk by e-mail. Ms. Paquette received a reply to her application the next day from Mr. Olaf Amundsen of Amaruk, which read:
I do not understand the purpose of your application considering you do not meet the minimum requirements that are clearly outlined on our website.
Additionally, considering you were involved with Trinity Western University, I should mention that, unlike Trinity Western University, we embrace diversity, and the right of people to sleep with or marry whoever they want, and this is reflected within some of our staff and management. In addition, the Norse background of most of the guys at the management level means that we are not a Christian organization, and most of us actually see Christianity as having destroyed our culture, tradition, and way of life.
Ms. Paquette replied to that e-mail stating that her religious beliefs and university should have nothing to do with whether or not she met Amaruk’s requirements. After a historical narrative regarding Christian influence on the Norse people, Ms. Paquette indicated that even if she were qualified for the position, she would refuse it. She concluded by stating, “God Bless, Bethany Paquette proud Christian and graduate of Trinity Western University.”
Mr. Amundsen, along with three other company representatives replied to Ms. Paquette, and their e-mails included the following statements:
• [P]eople who did not agree with your church would be flayed, burnt, roasted, quartered, etc… so you guys have a long history of intolerance…
• This is precisely because we cannot tolerate discrimination, or intolerance, that graduates from Trinity Western University are not welcome in our (Norwegian) company…
• We believe that a man ending up with another man is probably the best thing that could happen to him…
• [Discrimination] is equally unacceptable in the Kingdom of Norway, and as a result, within our company.
Ms. Paquette had no further communication with the authors of the e-mails and testified that the e-mails made her ashamed of who she was and that she had graduated from TWU. She maintained that she would have no problem guiding gay or bisexual clients.
Ms. Paquette filed a human rights complaint alleging that Amaruk discriminated against her on various grounds, including her religion.
The Tribunal’s Decision
The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal found that while one of the elements of Amaruk’s first e-mail was to communicate to Ms. Paquette that she did not meet the minimum requirements of the advertised position, Amaruk also made the point of “taking issue with the principles embraced by TWU and with Christianity on a broad-brush basis, which implie[d] that Ms. Paquette’s religious beliefs were a factor in rejecting her employment application.”
The Tribunal found that the subsequent e-mails clearly connected this aversion to Christian beliefs with Amaruk’s decision not to accept Ms. Paquette’s application. The Tribunal determined that a factor of Amaruk’s decision to deny Ms. Paquette the position was her past affiliation with TWU, establishing her, in the minds of Amaruk and its employees, as an evangelistic Christian.
The Tribunal found that Amaruk religiously harassed Ms. Paquette through its e-mails. Religious harassment generally requires a course of repeated conduct, but where the alleged conduct is extreme, a single act may be sufficient to make such a finding. The Tribunal was satisfied that this test was easily met in this case.
As a remedy, the Tribunal awarded Ms. Paquette $8,500 for injury to dignity and self-respect and $661.08 for reimbursement of expenses incurred in the proceeding. The Tribunal compared the facts of this case to those in Garneau v. Buy-Rite Foods where $15,000 was awarded to a complainant who was subjected to serious workplace bullying and harassment due to his physical and mental disabilities and perceived sexual orientation.
The Tribunal noted the discriminatory behaviour in Garneau persisted over a sustained period of time, while the events in Ms. Paquette’s case lasted for only four days. While Ms. Paquette submitted no medical evidence to support the effect that Amaruk’s e-mails had on her, she testified that they made her ashamed about who she was and dissuaded her from being forthcoming about her religious beliefs.
The Tribunal declined to award any damages for wage loss as it found that it was unlikely that Ms. Paquette would have been the successful candidate for the position, even in the absence of Amaruk’s discriminatory behaviour.
Lessons for Employers
While employers do not often act as egregiously as Amaruk did in this case, employers are reminded to be cautious about engaging in religious dialogue with prospective and current employees, particularly when it involves religious beliefs that may not accord with their own.
It is also important to remember that characteristics protected by human rights legislation (in this case religion) need not necessarily be the sole or overriding factor in an employer’s decision not to hire an applicant for the hiring decision to be discriminatory.
Indeed, in this case, Ms. Paquette admitted that she was not fully qualified for the position and the first statement Amaruk made to Ms. Paquette dealt solely with her lack of qualifications for the job. Unfortunately, Amaruk did not stop there. Its barrage of subsequent e-mails allowed the Tribunal to conclude that regardless of her lack of qualifications, Ms. Paquette’s religious beliefs were also a factor in Amaruk’s decision to deny her the position and that the decision was therefore discriminatory.
Note: In October of 2014, the CBC raised questions about whether Amaruk Wilderness Corp. is actually based in Norway, or whether it even offers wilderness services. Ms. Paquette’s counsel issued a press release shortly thereafter, stating that the report would not have any impact on Ms. Paquette’s complaint, and noted that Amaruk Wilderness Corp. is legally registered in British Columbia.