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Can a commercial printer invoke religion in order to refuse services?

A blog post on Torontoist yesterday looked at Toronto printer Harmony Printing, and its refusal to produce author Adam Bourret’s autobiographical graphic novel I’m Crazy, a story that deals with “histories, secrets, obsessive compulsive disorder, drugs, gay romance, hallucinations, and insanity.” Although Bourret is serializing the novel online, he wanted to do a small run of print copies, and approached Harmony for an estimate, to which he received this reply:

Unfortunately due to the content I am going to have to respectfully decline. The reason is we have a lot of long standing clients who are religious organizations. They are in our facilities all of the time and [we] cannot risk having this content out in the open during production. Please understand that this is not a slight against your artwork or the message that you are trying to convey to your audience. I wish you all the best and I hope you can understand our position.

The biggest unanswered question from Harmony’s reply is what dubious “content” they are referring to, since it is not explicitly mentioned. When the Torontoist contacted Harmony, they clarified that the issue was not the sexual orientation of the writer/main character, but rather the images of people having sex. Either way, is Harmony’s refusal of services legal? The Torontoist sums up the details on both sides of the debate:

A good place to start any discussion about the legality of refusing services is the Ontario Human Rights Code, which guarantees the right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods, and facilities without discrimination because of certain characteristics. After much struggle, sexual orientation was added as a characteristic in 1986.

The flip side, however, is that equal treatment isn’t guaranteed if the characteristic isn’t listed. (Exception: a court may choose to “read in” a new characteristic that has been unconstitutionally omitted, but this is rare.) So a magazine can refuse to print ads for escort services, and a club can have a style code, because the Code doesn’t prohibit discrimination in the provision of services against prostitutes or the unstylish.

If you accept Harmony’s defence–that it feared a backlash from religious clients who would object to images of people having sex–then Harmony is probably in the clear. The characteristic of “having sex” is not listed in the Code, and it is (highly) unlikely to be read in.

This is, as the quote above notes, if you accept Harmony’s defence, and that you don’t instead believe that Harmony feared a backlash from religious clients who would object specifically to images of two men having sex.

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