BC Court Hears Decision after City Cancels Youth Conference Rental
Aug 2021 Charity & NFP Law Update
Published on August 26, 2021

By Esther S.J. Oh

   
 

The British Columbia Supreme Court released its decision in The Redeemed Christian Church of God v New Westminster (City) on July 19, 2021. In this decision, a church, which rented an event venue from a municipality to host a youth conference, had its rental agreement cancelled without a specific explanation after the booking was earlier confirmed by the municipality. The court found that the City of New Westminster (the “City”) unjustifiably infringed the Redeemed Christian Church of God’s (also known as “Grace Chapel”) right to freedom of expression under subsection 2(b) of the Charter when it cancelled Grace Chapel’s event booking. 

Grace Chapel had entered into an agreement with the City to rent the Anvil Centre (“Anvil”) for its youth conference, an event open to the public and advertised on posters at Grace Chapel’s rented Sunday service location. Staff from Anvil received an email from a member of the public urging them to rethink hosting the youth conference and alleging that the content of the conference would be “anti-LGBTQ” based on the views of one of the conference’s facilitators.

While internal emails between Anvil and the City expressed concern over the possible dissemination of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, the City’s message to Grace Chapel did not outline its specific concerns with the church but instead generically stated that Anvil’s booking policy “restricts or prohibits user groups if they promote racism, hate, violence, censorship, crime, or other unethical pursuits.” Grace Chapel responded by advising that there would be no hate, racism or violence promoted at their conference and requested a meeting to discuss the content of the conference. The City advised that while a meeting could be arranged, this would not reverse the cancellation of the event.

Grace Chapel sought several forms of relief under the British Columbia Judicial Review Procedure Act (“JRPA”), including a declaration of procedural unfairness under the JRPA and unjustifiable infringement of its rights under subsections 2(a) (freedom of religion), 2(b) (freedom of expression), and 2(d) (freedom of association) of the Charter. Grace Chapel’s claims for relief under the JRPA were dismissed, as the court found that since (1) the case involved is, at its core, a contractual dispute over the rental of property, (2) did not involve the exercise of a statutory power that would invoke the duty of procedural fairness or (3) have sufficiently public character, it did not fall within the ambit of the JRPA. 

In relation to Grace Chapel’s claims under the Charter, the court found that Grace Chapel’s subsection 2(b) freedom of expression rights had been infringed. The court followed the test set out in Canadian Broadcasting Corp. v. Canada (Attorney General), and recognized that the singing and discussion contemplated at the youth conference was expressive content covered by subsection 2(b). The court found that the purpose of Grace Chapel’s expression “to consider biblical views regarding sexuality and identity issues” was not axiomatically at odds with the values of democratic discourse protected by subsection 2(b). In this regard, the court stated,

In a free and democratic society, the exchange and expression of diverse and often controversial or unpopular ideas may cause discomfort. It is, in a sense, the price we pay for our freedom. Once governments begin to argue that the expression of some ideas are less valuable than others, we find ourselves on dangerous ground.

The court also found the City failed to proportionately balance competing Charter rights, as the City took immediate steps to research and consider the concerns raised by the complaint it received (i.e. that anti-LGBTQ views would be disseminated at the youth conference). However, before cancelling the youth conference the very next day, the City took no similar steps to more fully inform itself about the anticipated content or focal points of the speakers at the youth conference. In this regard, the court stated that, “there was a clear imbalance in the City’s efforts to inform itself of the competing rights at stake, or to at least attempt to balance them. The failure to balance competing rights leads me to conclude that the City’s Decision is an unreasonable and unjustified infringement.”

Grace Chapel’s claim to rights under subsection 2(d) (freedom of association) was dismissed. Regarding Grace Chapel’s claim alleging infringement of its rights under subsection 2(a) of the Charter (freedom of religion), the court concluded that the issue required a trial in order to determine whether the claim falls within the scope of the protection under subsection 2(a) of the Charter or whether any infringement could be justified. 

This case reflects the willingness of the B.C. court to protect the Charter rights of charities and other not-for-profits where it is unclear whether or not an alleged infringement of a Charter right by a government body was justified. In this regard, while the court did not comment on procedural fairness rights under the JRPA, an important aspect of the court’s decision was based on the failure of the City to proportionately balance competing Charter rights.

   
 

Read the August 2021 Charity & NFP Law Update