EMPLOYMENT | What to do with Your Conscience at Work?.

AuthorBowal, Peter

We hear a lot today about people following their conscience. Conscience is more than mere preferences and choices. It is about one's values, spiritual worldview and visceral sense of right and wrong. Few employees want to compromise on their deepest conscientious beliefs for their jobs. These beliefs often arise from religious convictions but are technically independent of religion. How is one's conscience protected at work?

Constitutional Freedom but Not a Regulatory Human Right

To follow one's conscience is a fundamental freedom on par with equality and free speech in the Charter of Rights. That means that government employers at all levels throughout Canada must accommodate their employees' consciences.

However, most people do not work for a government entity. They work in the private sector which is governed by provincial and territorial law. The human rights legislation at this level does not require employers to preserve employees' freedoms of conscience. The only human right at this private sector level of employment is essentially equality and freedom from discrimination on enumerated grounds (such as race, gender, disability, age, etc.) unless there is a bona fide occupational requirement to discriminate on any of those grounds.

Even in the private sector, one also finds some inherent protection for conscience. If, for example, a worker is asked to do something illegal or unreasonably dangerous, the worker may refuse and will be protected by both regulation and the common law. No employer, when challenged in a legal proceeding, will get away with disciplining workers in such scenarios.

Conscientious Refusal to Perform Legal Acts

The more complicated question is when one can refuse to do something that is legal but still against one's deeply held convictions. A current example involves medical professionals such as nurses, physicians and pharmacists who may personally object to counselling or assisting in abortions, gender conversions or medically-assisted deaths. Since the government regulates these professions, the Charter freedom of conscience is in play.

Last year, in Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada v. College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, the Ontario Court of Appeal considered physicians' policies in the province that allow doctors to refuse to perform services for conscientious reasons but state the doctor must provide all patients with an "effective referral". The Court ruled the policy struck a proper...

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