TORONTO — Catholic leaders warn that a concerted legal attack against a prominent evangelical university is part of a broader initiative to diminish Christian institutions and culture in Canada.
In the eye of the storm is British Columbia-based Trinity Western University, a highly esteemed evangelical Christian school that not for the first time faces serious roadblocks to its future because it insists all students and staff sign a faith-based covenant that demands, in part, refraining from sexual relations outside of a marriage between a man and a woman.
As a result, licensing bodies in three provinces say they will not recognize the graduates from its proposed new law school, based on the assumption Trinity Western students will bring anti-homosexual attitudes into the profession.
“What is going on at Trinity Western is disconcerting, a slap in the face to all Catholics,” said Christian Elia, executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League (Canada).
“We have many, many institutions, from schools and hospitals to hospices. So if this becomes a precedent for dealing with an evangelical school, what might happen to our institutions? Once courts and governments start telling people what is an acceptable religious right, we start down the slippery slope.”
Trinity Western University, commonly known as TWU, has been consistently ranked as one of the top universities, religious or otherwise, for many years running by Canada’s national secular magazine, Maclean’s. However, it has run into serious problems several times in its history for the use of its community covenant, which has been interpreted as “homophobic” by critics.
“The ‘Community Covenant’ is a core part of defining the TWU community as distinctly Christian,” TWU spokeswoman Amy Robertson said. “We are not making a statement about LGBTQ people; we are making a statement about biblical marriage, which is sacred to us. The same covenant calls for all members of the TWU community to respect the dignity of others, regardless of their background. Loving one another without exception is one of the most important principles of the Christian faith.”
TWU does not ban students with homosexual orientation from attending, but does not recognize same-sex “marriage,” which has been legal in Canada since 2005.
The Battleground: Law-School Accreditation
Because of the covenant, licensing bodies for lawyers in Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia have all objected to accrediting the proposed law school. According to opponents such as Omar Ha-Redeye, who teaches at three Toronto-area law schools and is a member of the governing council of the Ontario Bar Association, TWU “is seeking “to make another law school which appears reserved for homophobes, or at the very least a law school which explicitly states that homosexuality is wrong.”
In June, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the ruling by the province’s regulating body, the Law Society of Upper Canada, to deny accreditation to TWU’s future law-school graduates.
The Court of Appeal ruling explicitly acknowledged that the denial of accreditation infringes TWU’s right to freedom of religion, as guaranteed by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but also held that “the part of TWU’s Community Covenant in issue in this appeal is deeply discriminatory to the LGBTQ community, and it hurts.”
Consequently, the court ruled, the Ontario law society’s denial of accreditation was in the public interest and “represents a reasonable balance” between TWU’s right of religious freedom and the law society’s statutory objectives.
Court appeals are still pending in Nova Scotia and British Columbia. Once those are completed, TWU plans to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada for a favorable ruling.
After the court decision, the Ontario law society said in a statement: “We are pleased that the court recognized the law society’s role in preventing and removing discriminatory barriers to access to the legal profession and, as the court put it, ‘the desirable goal of promoting a diverse profession.’”
The law school was planning to open in September, but because of the legal wrangling, this has been pushed back to September 2018.
For TWU, this experience is an almost exact repeat of troubles it ran into 20 years ago, with respect to its education graduates.
In 1996, the British Columbia College of Teachers said it would not license graduates of TWU because, allegedly, they would practice discrimination in the classroom. Two lower courts sided with TWU, so the teachers’ college took the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, which also ruled in the university’s favor in a 2001 decision.
The Canadian Supreme Court noted there was nothing that indicated TWU graduates would “not treat homosexuals fairly and respectfully.” Nor did the court find any evidence that alumni employed as teachers ever displayed discrimination against anyone in a classroom.
“It is frustrating, and it is concerning,” said Earl Phillips, the executive director of TWU’s law school, “frustrating because the issues and the facts are essentially the same. And it is concerning because of the idea that was protected by the [Canadian] Constitution then is not protected now, just 15 years later.”
Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver said that, based on what happened in 2001, he is hopeful TWU will prevail again before Canada’s Supreme Court. Still, he questions why a religious school should be tested time and again.
“In 2012, the Catholic bishops of Canada wrote a pastoral letter on freedom of conscience and religion to address issues just like this, which we saw cropping up more and more,” said Archbishop Miller, who served as secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education before his installation in Vancouver, in an email interview. “Today it continues, with people of religious faith being put in difficult situations because of their religious faith or consciences. We’re seeing a similar type of pressure in the assisted-suicide debate, where some would force religious health-care workers and institutions to participate in euthanasia against their will. And we’re seeing it in the Trinity Western case.
“From a legal and political perspective, Canada’s courts have consistently rejected any notion that there is a ‘hierarchy of rights’ in which religious freedom is secondary to other rights. The courts have similarly held that in a secular society we try to accommodate competing rights and make room for the widest involvement of different faith groups in addition to nonreligious perspectives.”
However, over the past several years, there has been a spate of incidents in which religious rights have been subordinated by secularist agendas. In 2012, the province of Ontario forced all schools — including those in the Catholic system — to allow for gay-straight alliances. Catholic schools proposed their own anti-bullying clubs, but their appeal was rejected. The country has also seen numerous universities banning pro-life student groups.
And notably, when the federal government made euthanasia legal this year, it said that while doctors opposed to the practice do not have to kill their patients directly, they must refer their patients to someone who will, an act considered as cooperation with evil in Catholic teaching. Canada is the only country in the world with legalized euthanasia that forces all doctors to make referrals.
Religious Right to Dissent
Religious-liberty advocates say that TWU’s recent travails at the hands of provincial law societies and courts are especially troubling, in light of the fact that the Canadian legislation that legalized same-sex “marriage” nationally includes explicit protection for religious institutions to dissent.
The preamble and the text of the 2005 Civil Marriage Act makes clear that religious dissent is allowed, stating: “[w]hereas nothing in this act affects the guarantee of freedom of conscience and religion and, in particular, the freedom of members of religious groups to hold and declare their religious beliefs and the freedom of officials of religious groups to refuse to perform marriages that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs.”
Phil Horgan, president of the Catholic Civil Rights League (Canada) and a lawyer who helped argue TWU’s case in Nova Scotia, noted that the inclusion of the right of religious dissent was a good example of Canadian pluralism and the balancing of rights.
“The marriage act was a positive example of the attention to pluralism in government decision-making,” he said.
Horgan expressed dismay that so many in Canada’s legal profession have chosen to ignore this right of dissent.
“[We are facing] a test of whether we truly believe that we recognize a plurality of religious views, or whether those informed by religion must stand down to the state’s observances of sexual morality,” he said. “In that event, the state is no longer acting in a ‘neutral’ manner.”
Register correspondent Charles Lewis writes from Toronto.