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Legal remedy for moral failings?

Should Christian organizations legally require a moral code of conduct for their employees?

Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed with Delwin Vriend that Alberta's human rights code should protect him and all homosexuals against discrimination. Vriend alleged he was dismissed by The King's College (TKC), a Christian liberal arts college in Edmonton, because of his homosexuality.

Vriend had not sued TKC because, in part, religious organizations may be exempt from certain anti-discrimination measures. However, for supporters of Christian organizations, the Vriend case was a wake-up call. Had Vriend sued TKC for wrongful dismissal, he may have won. The exemption Christian agencies enjoy is not automatic or absolute.

On the basis of legal advice, TKC is now considering imposing a code of conduct on its teaching staff. Some Christian schools have done so; others, particularly in Alberta, are thinking of doing this. The Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) has recently adopted such a policy for its national board members and representatives. Under some conduct policies, such as the one CLAC adopted, Christian organizations may, at their sole discretion, dismiss staff subject to moral failings. Among these failings are lying, swearing, premarital and extramarital sex, drag and alcohol abuse, and homosexual conduct.

Supporters of such a code of conduct suggest that preserving the Christian character of an organization requires staff and board members who provide examples of strong Christian character and faith in their private lives. Those in positions of leadership should give evidence of their confession, "walk their talk," and not bring disrepute to the organization.

In addition, it is said, the legal climate requires this. Without a code of conduct, faith-based organizations may be forced to hire, or be prevented from firing, people whose behaviour undermines the organization's Christian witness. Given the current legal requirements and, increasingly, less tolerance for an overtly Christian public witness, agencies need a code of conduct to protect their integrity as a Christian organization. In the past, we had the luxury of deciding on philosophical and biblical grounds whether to have a code of conduct and what to put in it. Today, it is suggested, the law and changing public values leave us no choice.

However, adoption of such legalistic codes of conduct is not without debate. There are also arguments on the other side. Since many Christian agencies face this issue, informed discussion is important.

The question is not whether faith-based organizations and schools can hire Christians committed to upholding the organization's constitution and qualified to meet the job requirements. That is in place now. The conduct policy empowers employers to dismiss employees for moral failings that occur in their private lives outside the workplace even though these do not adversely affect job performance. Those opposed to such codes of conduct raise several concerns.

First, there are practical problems. The legal advice is explicit. For such policies to have legal standing, infractions must be prosecuted rigorously, consistently and evenhandedly. If so, how much lying, swearing, etc., can be tolerated before dismissing someone? The prescribed moral conduct must be a bona fide occupational requirement. Is refraining from premarital sex a genuine occupational requirement? If it turns out an organization might hesitate to fire people for any of the listed moral failings except homosexual conduct, the whole policy will be deservedly dismissed as being disguised discrimination against homosexuals.

Second, there are biblically based objections. Jesus never accepted or rejected anyone on the basis of outward behaviour. In fact, Jesus' harshest criticism is directed at those who tried to do that. A list of moral behaviour is the wrong yardstick to measure if someone is a true Christian or not. Even if a list were justified, why this list? Are sexual sins more offensive than economic or other sins?

Third, there are philosophical objections. Are employers qualified to specify what moral behaviour is indicative of a sound Christian character? Surely, one's worship and faith community is a more appropriate forum for judging moral failings than one's employer. Are employers entitled to bind the moral consciences of their employees? Is giving employers such authority not an infraction of the freedom Christians enjoy in Christ?

Fourth, addressing moral failings by legal rather than pastoral means, and permitting employers to bind the consciences of employees on moral issues, is driven by pragmatic accommodation to current legal requirements and not on the basis of principles. Our mission is to transform culture. If the law forces on us policies more in tune with Pharisaical legalism than with the grace Jesus preached, why should we accommodate the law and suppress Christ's teachings?

A full-orbed Christian world-view frowns on regulating religion to the private sphere. Accommodating the prevailing mind-set of our culture, which happily sees religion as having relevance only for private moral conduct, is to undermine the very purpose for which Christian schools, organizations and agencies exist.

Fifth, in addition to objections of principle, there are also pragmatic considerations. Increasingly, there is less tolerance in our culture for an explicit Christian social witness through confessionally qualified semi-public institutions. Proponents of overtly legalistic codes of conduct see such codes as a defence, a way of preserving their right to be. Just what we need for these times. But is it? Public opinion will be more supportive of attempts to preserve confessional safeguards that are clearly job-related than attempts to regulate private moral conduct.

Finally, some schools and agencies have policies that list a biblical life-style as the expected standard; others describe God's will as an ideal to strive for. But that is different from specifying certain behaviour as a standard that must be attained on pain of dismissal. If the infraction is failing to attain God's will, who can stand? Moral failings require pastoral solutions, not legal remedies.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Presbyterian Record
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Loenen, Nick
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Nov 1, 1999
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