Updated Wed. Nov. 30 2005 7:48 AM ET

Deborah Chymyshyn and Tracey Smith speak with Canada AM on Wednesday.

Deborah Chymyshyn and Tracey Smith speak with Canada AM on Wednesday.

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B.C. tribunal awards lesbian couple damages

CTV.ca News Staff

The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has awarded damages to two lesbian women who claim they were discriminated against by a Catholic men's organization when they booked a hall for their wedding reception in the fall of 2003.

However, the tribunal also ruled Tuesday that the Knights of Columbus could have refused to host the party if it was in a manner contrary to its "core religious beliefs."

But the tribunal said in its judgment that the Knights did so in a way that affronted the same-sex couple's dignity, feelings and self-respect and should pay them $1,000 each, as well as reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses to compensate for their injuries.

"The Knights could have taken steps such as meeting with the complainants to explain the situation, formally apologizing, immediately offering to reimburse the complainants for any expenses they had incurred and, perhaps, offering assistance in finding another solution," the tribunal said in a written decision.

"There may have been other options they could have considered without infringing their core religious beliefs."

Deborah Chymyshyn and Tracey Smith decided to wed after same-sex marriage became legal in British Columbia.

The women booked the Knights of Columbus hall in Port Coquitlam for a reception in the fall of 2003.

Chymyshyn and Smith allege the Knights of Columbus council cancelled their contract when they found out it was for a same-sex couple, weeks after they had already paid their deposit and sent out their wedding invitations.

"It was really embarrassing to have to phone 60 people back and tell them we're not having our reception at this hall, and we have to go to a different place," Chymyshyn said, appearing on CTV's Canada AM.

"And it really took a lot of the wind out of the sails of what was supposed to be an incredibly happy event."

Sandra Hauser, who booked the hall for the couple, testified that it didn't occur to her that they were marrying each other, saying she believed they could have been friends or mother and daughter, their lawyer barbara findlay (who requests that her name is spelled in lowercase letters) told CTV.ca.

"While they may have been able to refuse based on their religious beliefs, they took no steps to respect the dignity of my clients," findlay said.

Findlay argued that the hall was a "service or facility customarily available to the public," since the Knights rented it to anyone in the community.

In a news release after the tribunal's ruling, findlay contended that the cancellation of the contract was discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

But George Macintosh, the lawyer for the Knights of Columbus, said the organization takes issue with the tribunal's finding that it didn't accommodate the complainants.

"The complainants located another hall the next morning, so that was taken care of," Macintosh told The Canadian Press.

"The Knights, when they found out about the misunderstanding, apologized to the complainants for the misunderstanding and offered to refund the hall rental.

"The communication just broke down when the Knights asked for a release to be signed before refunding the hall rental and the cost of printing the invitations, and that led to the hearing."

In submissions to the rights tribunal, the group said it was within its rights in refusing access to the hall, because as Catholics, the Knights of Columbus oppose same-sex marriage.

The Knights told the tribunal that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects religious beliefs and protects property owned by the Roman Catholic Church from being used for a purpose that opposes its beliefs.

Macintosh said the key part of the ruling was that the tribunal found the Knights were entitled to refuse access.

"That was certainly the basic issue, the main issue that was being contested in the tribunal hearing," he said.

Elemer Lazar, head of the Knights of Columbus council in Port Coquitlam, has said in the past that he doesn't understand why a same-sex couple would want to book a Catholic facility.

But Chymyshyn and Smith, who had difficulty finding a hall to hold their reception, say they did not know the Knights of Columbus was a Catholic organization.

"If we knew that it was a Catholic organization, if we knew who the Knights of Columbus were, we never would have gone there, and we've always said that," Chymyshyn said.

Chymyshyn said she found the hall when she was driving around the neighbourhood and noticed a "bingo" sign outside the facility.

"In Edmonton, which I was originally from, that usually means that it's a community hall. And here, most community halls are non-denominational," she said.

"I thought, 'Great,' it might be a place for us to check out, so I just drove down the road and I saw the sign on the door that said 'hall for rent' and a phone number," she said, adding they made an appointment to take a look at the hall and subsequently signed the contract to rent the space.

Though findlay says she and her clients are "jubilant" that they have been awarded damages, the legal challenge may not be over.

"For gay and lesbian people, we are going to need to study this judgment in detail. While my clients won their case, it currently appears that if the Knights of Columbus had found them another hall, the tribunal would have agreed that they could refuse the rental to my clients," findlay said.

"So one way of characterizing it is that we won the battle but we lost the war."

Canada became the fourth country in the world to sanction gay marriage, when same-sex marriage legislation received royal assent last July.

Bill C-38 faced fierce opposition from religious groups, the Conservative Party, and even some members of the Liberal government's ranks.

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