Like all students at Trinity Western University in Vancouver, British Columbia, education majors pledge not to smoke, drink, swear, take drugs or fornicate. Does this make them unfit to teach Canada's children?
Yes, says the British Columbia College of Teachers, the professional regulating body for educators in this western province. Now that group is taking its case against the evangelical Protestant institution to Canada's Supreme Court.
It's a case that has Canadian bishops worried about implications for Catholic education — indeed, for the concept of religious freedom — in the country. The bishops are seeking to have a voice in the defense of the school before the Supreme Court.
According to the College of Teachers, Trinity Western's Bible-based behavioral restrictions on such practices as premarital and homosexual sex discriminate against homosexuals; the College of Teachers says Trinity's standards also incline graduating teachers toward prejudice against any homosexually active students they might end up teaching. The school's executive vice president, Guy Saffold, says such charges are unfounded. Not only are Trinity Western students taught to respect the dignity of those they may not agree with, he says, but the behavior of the College of Teachers is “an intrusion into religious freedom and civil liberty” in Canada.
Located in Langley, just east of Vancouver, Trinity Western has operated a four-year degree program in teacher education since 1985. Education students must take their fifth and final year of teacher-training through a public, secular university before gaining certification.
In 1995, the school applied to the College of Teachers to offer the required certification year on campus. Despite approval from the College of Teachers’ own program-approval team, it eventually rejected the application on the grounds of discrimination. A frustrated Saffold says, “They ignored the evidence and then chose to go with a vague fear rather than anything specific.”
Doug Smart, registrar of the College of Teachers, says the organization is concerned about whether Trinity Western is an “appropriate setting to be preparing teachers for the public school system.” The basis for the concern, he adds, is the statement Trinity Western students and faculty must sign which “essentially condemns homosexuality as a sin.” He points out that homosexuality is a protected right under the decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada.
Fourth-year education student Kerby Court says that's the real crux of the problem. Court, 28, who commutes to the campus each day from Bellingham, Wash., also says students are “very aware” of the upcoming court case. “You're under the watchful eye of many people,” he says. There's a certain irony in this, he notes, because “Trinity Western is probably more open to talking about issues” than most other universities.
Trinity Western appealed to the British Columbia Supreme Court to have the College of Teachers’ decision overturned, and both that court and the British Columbia Court of Appeal have sided with the university.
Justice W.H. Davies of the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that no evidence had been submitted that Trinity Western graduates were biased. Justice Michael Goldie, writing for the appeal court, noted that many Trinity students already teach in public schools and there is “not one bit of evidence that any one of them has behaved in the classroom in a manner incompatible with the standards of the Canadian community.”
Both the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and the Catholic Civil Rights
League have intervened on Trinity Western's behalf in court. Even the Vancouver Sun, which rarely misses an opportunity to castigate religious practitioners, advised the College of Teachers in a Jan. 4, 1999, editorial to “give up [the] fight” against Trinity Western and “find better things to do.”
Digging Heels In
Yet, instead, the College of Teachers has decided to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, spurring the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to apply to intervene in the case, which is expected to be heard this fall. If their application is accepted, the bishops will argue with several other faith groups that, if the College of Teachers is successful, attacks on Catholic education in Canada will follow. These would surely include a demand for Catholic schools to cease giving Catholic preference when hiring to fill teaching positions.
“The case has wide implications for the Catholic Church and Catholic education right across the country,” says Bill Sammon, a lawyer for the Canadian bishops in Ottawa. Seeking intervenor status along with the Catholic bishops is the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada and the Christian Legal Fellowship, as well as civil-liberties organizations.
Supporting the College of Teachers are a homosexual lobby group and a group of Ontario high school teachers who claim Trinity Western students are being indoctrinated in a racist and sexist world-view. This is supported by a dissenting opinion from an appeals-court judge, Justice Anne Rowles, who wrote that teachers educated at Trinity could be perceived as discriminatory and the public interest may require “something more than mere tolerance.”
Sammon asks, if that were true, then why are Trinity Western students in such high demand in the public school system that the university can't turn them out fast enough?
The Canadian bishops’ apprehension is that teachers trained in the Catholic system might similarly be regarded as intolerant of homosexuals, says Sammon. “It's an assumption that is made on no evidentiary basis, and it's a real concern when you have a public body making decisions, based on their own perception of what might be, without any evidence of it at all.”
Whether the Supreme Court of Canada will follow the lead of the lower courts is anyone's guess. The court has in recent years ruled that homosexuality is an “immutable characteristic” like race or sex and is therefore protected from discrimination under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In another case, it ordered the province of Alberta to extend protection to homosexuals under its Human Rights Act.
Saffold agrees the Trinity Western case could impact religious freedoms across the country, including Catholic education. Legal decisions have a way of becoming generalized, he says, giving room for applications in unexpected areas.
If the Canadian Bishops’ Conference is granted intervenor status, Catholic and evangelical lawyers will argue together before the court — a once-unusual scenario that is becoming increasingly common. In recent years, Catholic and evangelical lawyers have argued that a pregnant, glue-sniffing woman should be jailed for the protection of her unborn baby, and that a child should be able to sue his mother for injuries sustained while she was carrying him in her womb.
Later this year, Catholic and evangelical lawyers will argue a case that could affect euthanasia law in Canada. The issue involves a Saskatchewan farmer who killed his physically disabled daughter by placing her in his truck and running an exhaust hose into the cab.
Saffold agrees that the relationship between evangelicals and Catholics is warming. He noted that, after years of discussions, Trinity Western and the Archdiocese of Vancouver reached a deal to establish a Catholic college on campus: Redeemer Pacific College opened its doors last September.
In a society that more often sees people with religious faith as intruders, Saffold says evangelicals and Catholics are recognizing that they share a “common worldview and moral framework.”
Paul Schratz writes from Vancouver, British Columbia.
- April 30-May 6, 2000