Legal cases

Since 2015, the BC Humanist Association has sought to bring the voice of Humanists and the nonreligious before Canadian courts. Through this advocacy, supported by generous pro-bono counsel, we have sought to defend "the state's duty of religious neutrality."

BCHA v City of Vancouver

In 2022, the City of Vancouver opened its inaugural council meetings with prayers from five religious representatives. The BCHA wrote to the City to ask them to commit to ensuring future meetings comply with the duty of neutrality. Counsel for the BCHA notified the City in April 2024 that the BCHA would be commencing legal action. On May 31, 2024, the City of Vancouver acknowledged that the prayers breached the duty of religious neutrality.

The BCHA was represented by Joel V. Payne of Allen / McMillan Litigation Counsel.

BCHA v City of Parksville

In 2018 and 2022, the City of Parksville opened its inaugural council meetings with Christian prayers. The BCHA repeatedly wrote to the City to ask them to observe the duty of neutrality. Having received no response, counsel for the BCHA notified the City in April 2024 that the BCHA would be commencing legal action.

The BCHA is being represented by Joel V. Payne of Allen / McMillan Litigation Counsel.

Vabuolas et al vs Information and Privacy Commissioner for BC

Two ex-Jehovah's Witnesses (JW) requested records held by their former congregations in Grand Forks and Coldstream. In both cases, the congregations refused, citing "confidential religious communications." The ex-JW's requested the Information and Privacy Commissioner of BC to review those refusals.

In June 2022, the Commissioner ruled that the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) applies to the congregations and any infringement on the JW's religious rights was justified under Section 1 of the Charter. In August, the JWs filed for judicial review of the Privacy Commissioner's decision and asked the BC Supreme Court to declare that parts of PIPA infringe on their rights to freedom of religion, expression and association.

The BCHA was granted leave to intervene in the case on December 12, 2022, and the case was heard September 27-29, 2023.

Justice Wilson dismissed the JWs petition on January 8, 2024, saying that "freedom of religion is not absolute." The JWs are appealing the decision to the BC Court of Appeal. On June 12, 2024, the BCHA was granted leave to intervene in the hearing, which is scheduled to take place on October 29.

Wes McMillan and John Trueman represented the BCHA at the Supreme Court of British Columbia. John Trueman and Chloe Trudel are representing the BCHA at the BC Court of Appeal.

BC Supreme Court

White Rock Pride Society v Star of the Sea Parish

White Rock Pride Society sought to rent the Star of the Sea Community Centre for a Pride Week fundraiser. The Centre is operated by the local Parish of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver, who refused to rent the hall.

The Society filed a Human Rights Complaint alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Parish denies discriminating and argues that any use of the hall must align with the core beliefs and teachings of the Church, which oppose same sex marriage.

The BCHA applied to intervene in the case and was granted leave in February 2021. The BCHA will make written submissions on the extent to which an organization can rely on freedom of religion to justify discrimination when participating in the public, commercial sphere.

In June 2022, the parties reached a settlement that involved the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver issuing a formal apology to the LGBTQ2S+ community.

The BCHA was represented by Wes McMillan at the BC Human Rights Tribunal.

Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St. Mary Cathedral v Teshome Aga

Five members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada complained about what they viewed as heresy in the church. Eventually the church expelled the members, who then sued claiming their rights as members were violated.

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice dismissed the claim, saying it was an internal matter and not for the courts to decide, while the Ontario Court of Appeal sided with the members and ordered a retrial on the basis that the Church's bylaws and the members monetary donations created a legal relationship that could be reviewed by the courts. The Church appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The BCHA intervened to argue that the religious nature of the organization should not shield its decisions and actions from judicial scrutiny. In other words, members of religious and secular organizations should have equal access to judicial review.

Arguments were heard in December 2020. The Court ruled on May 21, 2021 that the case was not justiciable on the grounds that there was no enforceable contract between the members and the church.

Read the BCHA's factum.

Read our summary of the judgement.

At the Supreme Court of Canada, the BCHA was represented by Wes McMillan.

Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University

Trinity Western University (TWU) is an Evangelical Christian university in the Fraser Valley. Under its mandatory Community Covenant Agreement, students were prohibited from sex outside of a heterosexual marriage. When TWU applied for approval for its law school from provincial law societies, the societies in BC, Ontario and Nova Scotia rejected the proposal on the basis of its discriminatory covenant.

TWU sought judicial review in each province. The school won at the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal in BC and Nova Scotia, and lost at both levels in Ontario. The BCHA, together with the Canadian Secular Alliance, intervened at the BC Court of Appeal.

The BC and Ontario rulings were appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2017.

The BCHA applied for leave to intervene at the Supreme Court of Canada. After only nine organizations, none of whom represented the LGBTQ2S+ community, were granted leave to intervene at the Supreme Court of Canada, the order was reversed and every application to intervene was granted. The BCHA presented its arguments at the Court in December 2019.

In a split decision, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 7-2 in favour of the Law Society of BC in 2018. The five-justice majority, writing as one, found that the Law Society's decision to reject the proposed law school was reasonable to maintain equal access to and diversity in the legal profession. Accepting the school risked "significant harm to LGBTQ people" and could undermine "public confidence in the administration of justice."

While the majority recognized an impact on the religious freedoms of the "TWU community", the mandatory nature of the Covenant was found to have significant impacts on others.

The LSBC’s decision prevents the risk of significant harm to LGBTQ people who feel they have no choice but to attend TWU’s proposed law school. These individuals would have to deny who they are for three years to receive a legal education. Being required by someone else’s religious beliefs to behave contrary to one’s sexual identity is degrading and disrespectful.

In his concurrence, Justice Rowe argued that there was no infringement of religious freedom in the case as religious freedom is an individual right. He quotes the factum of the Canadian Secular Alliance, who wrote “a right designed to shield individuals from religious coercion cannot be used as a sword to coerce [conformity to] religious practice.”

Following the decision, TWU made its covenant voluntary.

At the BC Court of Appeal, the BCHA and Canadian Secular Alliance were represented by Tim Dickson and Catherine George.

At the Supreme Court of Canada, the BCHA was represented by Wes McMillan and Kaitlyn Meyer.

Wood v Vancouver Coastal Health

Byron Wood was a registered nurse in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. He disclosed to his employer that he developed a substance use disorder in 2013 and was referred to treatment. To keep his job, he was required to complete the prescribed treatment plan, which included a mandatory follow-ups with Alcoholics Anonymous.

As an atheist, Byron objected to the religious content of the program and offered to instead attend secular alternatives such as SMART Recovery. When he was unable to attend those alternate programs and refused to attend AA, he lost his job.

In 2015, he filed a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal against his employer, union and professional college. The BCHA, together with Centre for Inquiry Canada, submitted a letter of support.

In 2016, the Tribunal ruled that the complaint could continue despite being filed after the required deadline as:

the complaint raises a novel and important issue and that this factor weighs in favour of acceptance. The issues of the religious nature of AA and whether mandated attendance violates the Code does not appear to have been addressed by this Tribunal.

In December 2019, CBC News reported that Byron reached a settlement agreement with Vancouver Coastal Health. As part of that agreement, 12-step programs will no longer be mandatory for healthcare professionals with substance use issues.

I'm really happy about the outcome — it means that VCH employees are not required to attend 12-step rehab centres, 12-step meetings, or participate in any 12-step activities if they object for religious reasons.

At the BC Human Rights Tribunal, the BCHA and Centre for Inquiry Canada were represented by Wes McMillan.

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