Private Christian universities await a tense court battle.
An intense struggle is happening in the realm of professional licensing in Canada. The religious freedom of Christians and others is colliding on a grand scale with the “equality rights” of the LGBTQ identity group, and as the tide turns in favor of equality rights, we are starting to witness socially accepted ostracism of Christians by professional bodies.
On April 24th, the law society of Canada’s largest province voted against admitting among their ranks graduates of Trinity Western University, for the sole reason that the school’s community covenant, which students (and teachers) voluntarily sign upon admission or hiring, reserves sexual intimacy for heterosexual marriage. Nova Scotia followed suit, wording their rejection as approval on the condition that TWU change its community covenant or allow students to opt out. In British Columbia, where the school is located, the law society voted on April 11th to admit TWU graduates to the bar, but momentum is building for the law society to reverse that decision in a special meeting on June 10th.
The Supreme Court of Canada will likely soon have a chance to settle this matter, since Trinity Western University has just launched lawsuits against the law societies of Ontario and Nova Scotia, rightly alleging that they failed to stick to the law and follow an earlier Supreme Court decision that approved TWU’s covenant. That 2001 decision, Trinity Western University v. BC College of Teachers, is still good law, but many of our country’s top lawyers have become convinced that a shift in public opinion and the legalization of same-sex marriage have altered the climate enough to overturn the Court’s earlier opinion.
Such lawyers might well be right. With same-sex marriage legalized, the public debate is now strongly weighed against Christians who believe in traditional marriage, and they face rapidly mounting charges of unreasonable intolerance. During the April 11th debate by the B.C. law society (read the transcript online), some Benchers considered TWU’s covenant discriminatory because it requires gay students to abstain from intimacy “even within a legal marriage,” and because it prevents gay students “from being married by the State, a right that was hard fought and hard won.”
Christians Belong in the Closet
As equality rights have been gaining ground, religious freedom has been on the retreat. Many lawyers now argue that even a private religious school like TWU must not be allowed to “discriminate” in its hiring practices by choosing teachers who abide by its moral tenets or by expecting students to conform their behavior to the beliefs that the school espouses.
This new “balance” between religious freedom and equality rights essentially asks TWU to enter the proverbial closet. It would mean that gay students or teachers could openly live out lifestyles that directly violate TWU’s religious values, while TWU would effectively be disabled from creating a campus life reflective of its religious beliefs.
The new reasoning holds that even as religiously-based morality is pushed out of the realm of action and into the confines of our minds, religious freedom is not being impacted. As B.C. Bencher Joe Arvay put it: “No one is asking any of their religious students or faculty to abandon their beliefs.” As long as no mind control is being applied, we are apparently free. But the mere freedom to think religious thoughts is a very narrow religious freedom indeed.
Such a restrictive understanding of religious freedom led Bencher Dean Lawton to caution the B.C. Law Society not to become “Pharisees of secularism,” and Bencher David Crossin agreed:
[T]he right to assemble and the right to freely and openly practice religious belief...is a fundamental right in this country that is to be jealously guarded...a response that sidesteps this fundamental Canadian freedom in order to either punish TWU for its value system or force it to replace it...would risk undermining freedom of religion for all and...would be a dangerous over-extension of institutional power.
Christians Are the New Racists
Just a few years ago, it would have sounded absurd to say that Christians who believe in traditional heterosexual marriage are akin to racists. Today this opinion is quite seriously held by an increasing number of our most prominent lawyers. B.C. Bencher Cameron Ward put it this way: “I remember that in the 1960s some people in the deep south of the United States were made to feel unwelcome at lunch counters, at the fronts of buses and, indeed, in some universities...TWU’s community covenant is an anachronism, a throwback that wouldn’t be out of place in the 1960s.” Other Benchers asked “whether we would have the same debate over discrimination against other equity-seeking groups, like women, people with disabilities or racial minorities.”
What is perhaps most concerning about these comparisons of Christianity to racism and other heinous intolerance is that they lead directly to the belief that Christians are simply not capable of practicing their professions without imperilling the rights of minority groups. Just as they would feel justified in excluding those who hold racist or misogynistic beliefs from positions of influence, so many Benchers also found it right and good to exclude Christians from the legal profession. For such lawyers, Christians have become synonymous with bigots who represent a public threat.
What Is Next for Canada?
Trinity Western University has started the process of bringing this whole matter back to the Supreme Court of Canada, but the outcome of that legal journey is far from certain. The climate has steadily shifting in favour of equality rights, and significant factions in the legal community now believe that religious freedom should be far more limited. Ontario’s law society is the largest and most influential in Canada, and its ostracism of TWU may well be heralding a new trend of exclusion of Christians from public and professional life.
If the Supreme Court decides against TWU, then surely other professional bodies will not stay far behind Ontario and Nova Scotia in excluding the graduates of TWU. Teachers already tried to do this in 2001, and emboldened by a new ruling they would surely try again. Nurses, dentists, accountants and other professionals could well follow suit.
Other Christian schools need to get ready for the domino effect. There are various independent religious schools in Canada, and many of them have covenants. Such schools should get ready for difficult decisions about putting their faith into practice. While they may be allowed to keep their covenants for the time being, they could be limiting the job opportunities of their graduates by doing so.
In the future, even foreign-trained students may not find welcome in Canada if their schools profess the sanctity of traditional marriage. Many international law students arrive in Canada each year, and currently the law societies do not look at the belief systems of the schools they came from but rather, they examine the academic training these students received. All this may change if our law societies proceed further in the direction of excluding students from schools like TWU. Even American students studying at private religious schools with covenants that profess the sanctity of traditional marriage might find their future career options curtailed in Canada.
The current developments in Canada bring to mind a quote from Princeton Professor Robert George, who recently warned Catholics in Washington, D.C. of a nascent persecution of Christians in our society:
To be a witness to the Gospel today is to make oneself a marked man or woman. It is to expose oneself to scorn and reproach. To unashamedly proclaim the Gospel in its fullness is to place in jeopardy one’s security, one’s personal aspirations and ambitions, the peace and tranquility one enjoys, one’s standing in polite society. One may in consequence of one’s public witness be discriminated against and denied educational opportunities and the prestigious credentials they may offer; one may lose valuable opportunities for employment and professional advancement; one may be excluded from worldly recognition and honors of various sorts; one’s witness may even cost one treasured friendships. It may produce familial discord and even alienation from family members. Yes, there are costs of discipleship—heavy costs.
These are the costs that Christians in Canada may indeed now have to bear, much sooner than they perhaps expected.
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