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Religious freedom at TWU imperiled by Law Societies

The ongoing debate about the legitimacy of Trinity Western University’s new law school should give us all pause, especially those involved in Christian education. This is a key fault line in a clash of worldviews that is playing out in our day.

On one side is the traditional Christian view, which believes in transcendent norms for life, created by God and revealed in the Scriptures, as the key to human flourishing. On the other is a secular, liberalizing worldview committed to individual choice, equality and self-expression as the bedrock of a free society.

This clash is not new. We saw it in the movement for sexual freedom and then the push for a woman’s right to abortion. We’ve seen it in increasingly permissive attitudes toward casual sex and cohabiting. And we see it now in the movement for legalizing marijuana and euthanasia.

There has also been a rapidly emerging trend in relation to sexual preference and orientation. In this area, proponents have worked to convince our society that sexual orientation is a human right which should be protected against discrimination in the same way that race and religion are.

Even more, in this view sexual preference becomes the defining character of a person’s identity, now referred to by the sexual orientation of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer) in addition to straight (heterosexual) men and women, rather than firstly as image bearers of God.

Past precedent
As the social consensus increasingly shifts in favour of more choice, including a more open sexual ethic, a segment of the legal community in our society is seeking to use this trend to force a reframing of individual human rights. Individual rights related to sexual orientation, they argue, override the freedom of institutions with a religious identity, particularly universities, to define standards of conduct consistent with their religious beliefs.

This issue was tested in 2001, when the British Columbia College of Teachers would not accredit Trinity Western’s teacher education program because of the school’s community standards, which state that sexual intimacy should be reserved for marriage (understood as traditional marriage, hence the opposition of the LGBTQ movement). This was overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada, which upheld TWU’s religious freedom.

The College of Nursing later accredited TWU’s nursing program, first at the bachelor’s and then at the Master’s level. And a variety of other programs at TWU are also recognized for professional accreditation. All this is consistent with the current legal landscape – the Charter, Sections 2 and 15, has been interpreted as upholding communal religious freedom in relation to this issue, and human rights legislation (which is provincial) in Nova Scotia, Ontario and B.C. also has similar provisions.

New legal challenges
Now the approval of Trinity Western’s law school has become a flashpoint in this debate, and some in the legal community are again pushing to change the legal landscape to align with their permissive worldview. Their argument that TWU’s code of conduct is discriminatory (because it doesn’t sanction gay lifestyle and marriage), and therefore its law school should not be accredited, is designed to elevate the protection of sexual preference as if it were an identity on the same level as race. As they expected, this has led to a struggle playing out in several law suits now before the courts, which they are hoping will eventually overturn the precedent set in 2001.

Initially, TWU’s proposed law school was accredited by the review board of the Canadian Federation of Law Societies and the Minister of Advanced Education of B.C., as well as the Law Society of B.C., since provincial law societies each set the standards for provincial legal practice. However, when the Law Societies of Nova Scotia and Ontario voted not to accept future TWU law school graduates, the B.C. Law Society, based on a referendum, reversed its decision, and this in turn prompted several lawyers to sue B.C. Minister of Advanced Education Amrik Virk because of his approval of the school.

This case was to have its initial hearing on December 3 and has now been postponed to January 5, 2015. In the meantime, the Minister has now announced that he is considering revoking the initial accreditation of TWU’s law school. The approval had a three-year limit within which the school could open and was based in part on the positive responses of the Canadian Federation and the B.C. Law Society. Another consideration may be that the legal challenges could impede TWU’s ability to open the school within three years.

High stakes
Prior to all this, TWU had also sued the Law Societies of Nova Scotia and of Ontario in order to protect its religious freedom and ensure the accreditation of its law school and the professional recognition of its graduates. The Nova Scotia case was expected to have its initial hearing on Dec 16, with a decision not likely to be made until the new year. The Ontario case was scheduled to be heard in January but has now been postponed in view of the other decisions that are pending. Minister Virk is expected to reach a decision before January 5, and many anticipate that he will revoke the initial accreditation.

TWU is determined to pursue this issue to the Supreme Court, if necessary, to protect the integrity of its religious identity and freedom. Presently, it appears that either the Nova Scotia case, if it is not stayed, or a new suit that TWU may launch against the B.C. Law Society’s reversal of its approval will be the arena in which this important matter is debated and decided. As such, Christian Higher Education in Canada (CHEC), a non-profit association of 34 Christ-centred post-secondary institutions, is a co-intervener with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada in the case, along with several other Christian organizations.

Much is at stake. The view that TWU’s law school graduates ought not to be recognized and the law school itself not accredited goes to the heart of TWU’s religious freedom to hold and practice its beliefs as a community. Implied is the claim that, regardless of meeting all academic standards, a faith-based institution is not legitimate because it doesn’t subscribe to generally accepted sexual morality.

Essential freedoms
Such a claim is not limited to one professional degree but rather has implications for all professional qualifications and university degrees granted by Trinity Western and all other Christian institutions with similar standards. As such, if left to stand, it would put pressure on Christian universities and graduate schools to dumb down, in wording or in substance, moral standards that reserve sexual intimacy for traditional marriage, or else face exclusion from professional certification, possibly institutional associations, and even from accreditation.

This would undoubtedly lead to more long and costly legal battles, which, regardless of the outcome could be damaging for the credibility of these institutions, at least for a time. Were the liberalizing view to prevail, it would force changes that have the potential to undermine the Christian ethos and academic integrity of these institutions, with possible implications for Christian schools, organizations and churches as well.

In fact, such incursions into religious freedom are already occurring. The Quebec government has dictated how a Catholic school can teach world religions – the Loyola case now at the Supreme Court – and there are pressures in Alberta for Christian schools to teach the provincially mandated sexual education curriculum.

Given these considerations, the Christian educational community and Christian community in general, as well as all those who value the freedoms associated with Canada’s pluralistic and democratic society, would do well to rally around TWU and the issue its law school represents.

This issue should also lead us to reflect on the ethos and practice on our campuses, in our churches and in the wider Christian community, as we seek to embrace and enfold those who deal with sexual and other issues. Such reflection should continue to be pursued, regardless of legal challenges. More importantly, it is a strategic opportunity to make the case, not so much for Christian morality, but for freedom essential to a democratic society. May God grant us wisdom and courage to be faithful in these challenging times.
 

  • Justin D. Cooper is the Executive Director of CHEC (Christian Higher Education Canada), a national association of 34 Christ-centred, accredited and degree granting colleges, universities and seminaries.

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