Published in the Vancouver Sun on Thursday, Douglas Todd’s “Proposed Christian law school at Trinity Western under fire because of university’s anti-gay rules” paints an inaccurate picture. The headline demonstrates a desire to forge a battle of rights that simply does not exist. It follows from a letter publicized this week by the Council of Canadian Law Deans that condemns Trinity Western University’s (TWU) law school proposal. Having received this article circulated by both Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Pro Bono Students Canada, and as a law student and TWU aluma, I have a particular interest in the concerns it raises. They are, however, of little merit.
There are no particular “anti-gay rules” in TWU’s Community Covenant as Todd and the Council of Canadian Law Deans suggest. The provision repeatedly pointed to appears under the category of acts “community member will voluntarily abstain from”:
- sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman
This passage applies to pre-marital sexual intercourse of all orientations. Notably, the Covenant lists other standards like refraining from prejudice, harassment or any form of verbal or physical intimidation. It also includes more unique-to-TWU items like restricting “materials that are degrading… including, but not limited to pornography” and the use or possession of alcohol or tobacco on campus.
Every university sets standards for conduct. TWU does not force students to sign the Covenant. It is a choice. It is made clear that this is a voluntary act that is part of joining the community, making a covenant before each other and before God. Homosexual students are able to, and indeed do attend TWU. There are also students of other faiths who come to TWU for its safe environment. They are not forced to subscribe to Christianity, but they are expected to uphold the values of the TWU community while members.
Even if it were the case that TWU prohibits homosexual students from remaining part of its community, expelling them at will, they have the freedom as a religious institution to do so. Whether it is right or wrong to proscribe against students smoking or watching pornography on campus is a different question from TWU’s constitutionally protected right to do so. This was settled in the 2001 Supreme Court decision, Trinity Western University v. BC College of Teachers which relates specifically to the provision on the sacredness of marriage and its potential for discrimination. There is no legal argument to stand on, so we turn to feelings.
The Council of Law Deans expressed “great concern.” Why? What is the Council afraid of? Christians are already slogging through their legal educations at universities across Canada and being Called to the Bar. Since the issue named is contrary core values, is the assumption that by studying law in a public university, Christian students will be “enlightened” and abandon their worldview? This simply serves to illustrate the point raised in the article by Dr. Janet Epp-Buckingham, who is spearheading the initiative, that institutions, then, are not the open environment they claim. This “openness” is based on imposing an absolute claim of pluralism. Religious freedom, however, IS a core value.
The Council also introduces academic freedom as a potential clash of rights. The above Supreme Court case refers to a restrictive covenant for both students and employees. So as long as TWU receives accreditation for its courses, this is, again, settled. As the only university in Canada to have received an A+ for quality of education seven consecutive years, most recently for 2013, in The Globe and Mail’s annual Canadian University Report, it is likely they will continue receiving accreditation.
Having read many comments on the matter, there seems to be a general concern for students being indoctrinated with “Christian Law.” Much like there is no “Christian Math” or “Christian Physics” at TWU, there can be no “Christian Torts” or “Christian Contracts.” Further, graduates would neither be able to rely on a “Christian Criminal Code” nor holdings from a “Christian Supreme Court” in forming arguments. It’s true that the elective courses that are offered may deviate from other law schools; for example, TWU is proposing a specialization in “Charities and Social Justice.” However, traditional, required courses will differ only in how professors approach the material and the discussion that ensues, rather than the material itself. The law is the law – and Christians are not particularly known as lawbreakers. The Bible, in fact, teaches to submit to governing authorities and obey the laws of the land (Romans 13:1-7).
As for academic freedom, that it exists in public institutions absolutely is a myth. Try being a pro-life political science professor. I know one. His students and colleagues called for the revocation of his tenure after he was scheduled to speak at a pro-life rally unassociated with the university. Christian academics are not entirely free in the public realm. TWU’s website is clear with regards to its standard for academic freedom, affirming the importance of seeking truth, but rather than springing from a position “which arbitrarily and exclusively requires pluralism without commitment, denies the existence of any fixed points of reference, [and] maximizes the quest for truth to the extent of assuming it is never knowable…” it begins with a stated Biblical perspective. Academics in both spheres begin their research within the confines of their worldviews.
I conclude that the concerns raised regarding the law school proposal are little more than Christianity, and religious freedom in general, under fire. It’s not an issue of competing rights. Homosexual students can and do attend TWU, while it’s entirely conceivable that they may feel uncomfortable. Similarly, Christians can and do attend public law schools where they are forced to comply with pluralism and attend sessions like “Diversity Training.” Academics in both institutions have pressure to consider the world from within an established framework, the difference being that professors at private institutions have voluntarily chosen to do this. So we return to feelings.
The Council of Canadian Law Deans dislikes TWU’s Community Covenant, but they have no legal footing to oppose it as was established in Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers. Law is no different from any other field TWU graduates currently serve, and Christians are already permitted to become lawyers. It will be up to the market to determine whether TWU-trained lawyers are employable and successful. If the past is any indication of the future, they will be just fine.
The President of the Canadian Council of Law Deans, Bill Flanagan, and the President of Trinity Western University, Dr. Jonathan Raymond, are interviewed on CKNW’s The Bill Good Show here: https://soundcloud.com/twualumni/cknw-bill-good-show-jan-17
*Please Note: the views expressed herein do not represent the views of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. However, CCLA acted as an intervenor in the Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers case and their submissions can be found here: http://ccla.org/2000/06/15/trinity-western-university-v-bc-college-of-teachers-religion-and-discrimination-at-teaching-colleges/