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Queen's University
 

The Hellquist Case (2001)

How do courts reconcile freedom of religious expression with the prohibition of homophobic expression?

Facts:

In June 1997, the Star Phoenix printed an advertisement placed by Hugh Owens for bumper stickers featuring a mathematical equation: four homophobic biblical passages, followed by an equal sign, followed a circle containing two stick figures holding hands who had been crossed out by a line. Three gay men, Gens Hellquist, Jason Roy and Jeff Dodds, interpreted this information to mean that Star Phoenix, Hugh Owens and the Bible endorsed the condemnation of gay men.  They filed a human rights complaint against the individual who placed the ad and the newspaper that published it.     Hellquist v Owens (2001), 40 CHRR D/197 (Sask. Bd. Inq.)]

Questions:

  1. Is the advertisement prohibited under s. 14 (1) of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, as exposing a protected group to hatred or ridicule?
  2. Is the advertisement permitted under s. 5 of the Human Rights Code, and s. 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as being an exercise of freedom of speech?

Rulings:

  1. Yes
  2. No

Reasoning:

  1. The Saskatchewan Human Rights Board of Inquiry found that the two stick figures holding hands was a neutral representation of gay men. Their enclosure within a circle crossed by a slash, the universal sign for forbidden, not allowed or not wanted, did not, in and of itself, necessarily promote a message of hatred. It was the equal sign equating the forbidden stick figures to explicitly homophobic biblical passages which exposed gay men to hatred. "When combined with the biblical quotations, the advertisement may result in a far stronger meaning. It is obvious that certain of the biblical quotations suggest more dire consequences and there can be no question that the advertisement can objectively be seen as exposing homosexuals to hatred or ridicule".
  2. S. 14 of the Code presents a reasonable limit on the right guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states that every person or class of persons enjoys the right to freedom of expression in various media. This is because  s 14 of the Code prevents only those messages that objectively expose a protected group to hatred, ridicule or indignity.  As such, the Board of Inquiry finds that both Owens and Star Phoenix have discriminated against Hellquist, Dodds and Jones by exposing them to hatred, ridicule and indignity on the prohibited ground of sexual orientation. Both are therefore ordered to cease and desist placing or printing the homophobic advertisement and Owens is prohibited from selling or displaying the bumper sticker containing the discriminatory message.

Kingston, Ontario, Canada. K7L 3N6. 613.533.2000