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Commission intervenes in religious rights and zoning appeal

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The Commission intervened in Sarnia (City) v. River City Vineyard, an appeal heard by the Court of Appeal for Ontario in October 2014. A lower court (the Superior Court of Justice) had ruled that River City Vineyard, a Christian Church in Sarnia, could no longer operate a shelter for homeless persons in its basement.  The City had allowed the Church to operate the shelter for about 5 years and the Church had spent approximately $100,000 renovating the basement so that it would comply with necessary fire and building code standards.  When the Church applied for permanent rezoning, the City of Sarnia denied the Church’s request. 

The Superior Court had found that the City’s zoning by-law, which sets out what activities may be carried out in a place of worship, did not allow a shelter.  The Superior Court accepted that the Church’s congregation had a sincerely held belief that they must shelter the poor and homeless at the Church but still found that it would not be a significant infringement of their religious rights under section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for the Church to operate a shelter somewhere else.  The Superior Court also said that the equality rights and religious rights of other Sarnia residents would be violated by recognizing the religious rights of the Church. 

The OHRC intervened at the Court of Appeal to argue that if the by-law is unclear it should be interpreted to allow the shelter and to also argue that the Superior Court hadn’t properly consider the law as set out the by the Supreme Court of Canada when deciding whether the by-law infringes freedom of religion under section 2(a) of the Charter.  The Commission argued that the Superior Court should not have substituted its own view of how the congregation could fulfill its religious obligations for the subjective beliefs of the congregation, and that the Court set too high a threshold for showing a non-trivial interference with the congregation’s religious rights.  The Commission also argued that the religious and equality rights of other Sarnia residents were not affected and could not be used to limit the rights of the Church. 

On July 3, 2015, the Court of Appeal released its decision and overturned the decision of the Superior Court.  The Court of Appeal found that the wording of the by-law did allow the church to operate the shelter as the by-law permitted “church-sponsored community activities and projects”.  Because of this conclusion, it was not necessary for the Court to consider the Charter arguments raised.  The result is that, subject to any appeal, the Church can once again operate a homeless shelter in its basement.