Op-ed: Freedom of Religion under fire from Canadian Law Deans

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/


11 Comments on "Op-ed: Freedom of Religion under fire from Canadian Law Deans"

  1. I thought you made a great point re: academic freedom. I think it’s true that in such a setting, pro-life professors should be given their “pulpit” just as much as pro-choice professors. I have my own views, and I should encourage, and not discourage, the opposite side.

    However, I fail to see how a provision that asks students not to violate the sacredness of marriage between a man and a women as anti-gay. If, as you argue, it applied to all pre-marital relations with no attempt to discriminate, I believe the provision would end after “marriage.” However, the institution feels the need to single out their definition of marriage, which in turn specifically speaks out against homosexual relationships. The university President has spoken out in favour of this interpretation. It may cover all relationships, as you argue, but the need to be more specific than simply “marriage” is the issue here.

    I thank you for your insight here: it’s done a lot for me to try and see the other side. I don’t have any issue on principle to an institution that wants to train lawyers with more “God-like” instruction at its core: all the power to them. I would be interested in reading more on how Christians face a “hostile environment” in current law schools, as in my personal experience, I haven’t seen it, but I also haven’t been out looking for it. However, if part of the institution’s core values by definition exclude a group of individuals who are afforded Charter protection against discrimination (TWU v. College of Teachers aside, homosexuals still fall under s. 15), I fall on the side of the law school deans on this one.

  2. Correction:

    However, I fail to see how a provision that asks students not to violate the sacredness of marriage between a man and a women is not anti-gay.

  3. David Gruber, Dalhouse University | 19/01/2013 at 2:26 pm |

    I think it’s worth pointing out that there’s another, perhaps more pressing reason to avoid establishing a new Canadian law school. We are already at risk of over-saturating the market with too many law graduates. There’s evidence of this in Ontario. And in the US, where there are lots of private law schools, the problem is much worse. Unless BC is somehow the exception, founding a new law school at this point is simply unnecessary.

    There’s an argument to be made that creating another avenue for entering the legal profession—one which is exclusive by definition—effectively limits accessibility for everyone else. Law students are facing a bottle neck; accrediting a private denominational law school essentially creates an alternate path which is only open to one group.

    It’s not clear to me why we need a Christian law school at all. As you rightly point out, TWU’s law curriculum will necessarily resemble that of every other Canadian common law program. I’ve agreed with you in the past that our universities need to be way more tolerant when it comes to the anti-abortion movement. But there’s simply no reason to think Christians face a “hostile environment” in law schools (as the woman quoted in the article claims). Anyone who wants to abstain from alcohol and pornography and extra-marital or homosexual coitus is perfectly free to do so. Not only are Christians not persecuted, but Christianity remain by far the majority religion in this country. It’s amazing the extent to which certain Christian activists are confused about this.

  4. I take issue with many points you have raised. I do not find the University of Toronto to be discriminatory towards people of faith. Students of several religions attend the school. Many have clubs and societies. They are funded by the school. Though I have heard and taken part in debates about religion with peers, such cannot be considered discriminatory. It’s a free academic discussion, which you so highly praise. Freedom of speech is paramount. By that same token, people often state their religious views in class (and some very odd interpretations of religious principles). They are not discriminated against. If you’re suggesting that the school is adverse to your beliefs because there are many people who disagree with them, then I do not think you understand the meaning of discrimination. TWU would certainly qualify as a discriminatory school if that were the case.

    I would be expelled from TWU. No refund. I would never attend that university for study of any subject. Gays would be silly to attend TWU. You have to hide who you are. It can and does cause severe emotional trauma. Trying to say TWU doesn’t discriminate against gays is offensive to reason. The Catholic church has taken a despicable stance on this apparently new phenomenon of gay people. And so many Christians actually believe it. How about you being reminded that the thought of you getting married to someone you love undermines the morals of an entire country — in nearly every country?! It is illegal to be gay in more countries across the world than gay marriage is even recognized. The religious right is terrifying in this regard. We need to be way more open to people’s sexuality, not less. I have never met a Christian comfortable with my sexuality. And based on what? Two books? Yes, books of highly dubious origin written over centuries that tell really crazy, violent stories. Most of the good stuff is conveniently ignored in interpretation anyways. But the upper ranks of many Churches still hold on to this one gay point. Seems pretty discriminatory to me. TWU is the same way, as Canadian Law Deans have noted. Michael (above) agrees on this point. Most do.

    Your point re: Christian Math v Christian Contracts is absurd. The most fundamental principle of math and science decries belief in that which is not proven. Science leaves no room for faith. The world’s top scientists strongly agree. Softer subjects, on the other hand, do make room for religion. Need anyone remind you that Equity and the Chancery are ecclesiastical in origin? Constitutional law can be taught and considered strongly in light of religion. (p.s. I hope you like the internet — it was created and developed almost entirely by non-religious people. And if you use a Mac or Windows, those were too!) It is a fundamental tenet of science that it is impartial and objective. That can hardly be considered a confining worldview. The whole point of science is that anyone can do it — it has no worldview at all! The universe works, science observes. That’s it.

    Yes, religious students do attend law school, some excel, and some make great lawyers. Would having a Christian law school add “diversity” to the Canadian legal community? If you are saying that having a Christian law school would not change the course material and remain an open environment to people of all backgrounds, then clearly not. If you actually mean that TWU law students would somehow be different, then I still don’t think this would add diversity. Is adding a bunch of lawyers who have the same world views to the pool really make it more diverse? Especially when Christian lawyers already exist there? Nope.

    Catholic priests seem to be busted suspiciously frequently for “sex scandals” with children. I don’t need to remind you of Anders Breivik killing 77 youths in Norway. If you have proof that Christians break the law less than non-Christians, I would be interested in seeing it. But you seem to be hinting that Christians are more ethical, principled people. That would be an absurd assertion. I cannot bother addressing it.

    I know that having an extra law school in Canada is unnecessary anyways, due to lack of demand. But that was not the point of the Council’s decision. It’s because TWU does not meet ethical standards (as distinct from legal ones).

    The past is not an indication of the future.

  5. Bobby,

    Before you shoot your mouth off about a school you obviously know nothing about, think about society and objectives for the human race. Why does sexuality need to be “out there” so much? If one is comfortable with their sexuality then they need not have other people say “yay!” In fact, most people do not need this – heterosexual, gay or otherwise. People are people are people; TWU does not state otherwise. The matter that you need other to “be way more open to people’s sexuality, not less” says nothing about TWU’s ability to educate people to be lawyers. I attended TWU for a professional designation and have done very well with my career, am not homophobic (nor have I ever been) and received an education unparalleled to other schools offering the same certification. Watch TWU win in court. They will.


  6. Kate,

    Thank you for your vanilla perspective on life. You are clearly an amazing person.

    Unlike most Canadians, I unfortunately am aware that TWU exists. I am aware of the words written on the code of conduct. I am also aware of the interpretation of the words. You are absolutely correct that TWU agrees that people are, in fact, people. It’s startling.

    TWU’s code of conduct is disagreeable amongst Canada’s law deans. Try to disagree. Law school is not just about what you learn in the courses.

    Yes, yes, everyone who knows that TWU exists clearly equates it with Harvard and Cambridge. It’s such an amazing school. It has obviously been touched by God (in all the right places!).

    If you are not homophobic you do not follow the bible. I applaud you for this. It would be ridiculous to actually believe anything written in there. But you still seem to be a Christian. So maybe you do follow the bible. Or maybe you selectively follow the bible. That makes sense, right?

  7. Bobby the Logician | 20/01/2013 at 8:44 am |

    Here’s a breakdown of my previous post just so you can all see what I did there:


    [Sarcastic opener with chauvinistic undertones. Followed by more sarcasm and condescension]. This let’s her know that I am prepared to take this fight to the next level, armed with my wit and expansive vocabulary. Also, she will listen to me because her religion orders her to listen to men.

    [Subtle jab to communicate that most Canadians don’t know about her silly private, liberal arts university and also, that I’m actually worse off for even knowing about it. I somehow found time to read code of conduct amidst my busy schedule. And I follow by straw-manning a tertiary point she made about whether people at TWU were actually being considered real people (they are all people). Close the paragraph with more sarcastic condescension, I wasn’t actually startled] This shows her that, even though I was never accepted to Law School, I can still read rules with the best of them. It’s a classic “check-yourself or wreck-yourself” ultimatum – “don’t mess with me, vanilla-Kate”.

    [Using a big word like disagreeable makes me sound smart, even though it doesn’t really make sense in this context. But that’s OK, remember, Kate is just a woman. In an effort to confuse her, I actually dare her to disagree with us (me and the Law School deans that actually asked me to stop applying after the 6th year of rejection letters). I then remind her, based on films I’ve seen, what law school is really about. It’s not just courses, dummies! It’s other stuff too. Again, I wouldn’t know for sure, as I was never accepted.] This paragraph doesn’t say anything valuable at all.

    [Here, I make her think that she said something ridiculous like “TWU exists, therefore it is academically equivalent to Harvard or Cambridge” “Yes, yes, Kate. Yes, yes.” Confusion is a logician’s best friend. I don’t think TWU is an amazing school, that’s more sarcasm. I then proceed to categorically mock their religion, and double down by alleging that their “God” probably molested their entire school, with his big God-hands. I’m on a f*cking roll!]

    [I was saving my strongest logic for the last paragraph. Truth: Because all Christians are homophobic, if you are not homophobic, you are not a Christian. Therefore, if you are not a Christian, you are not homophobic. If you are homophobic, you must be a Christian. Here, Kate has a choice. Either she accepts each word of her crazy religious text and join Westboro Baptist Church. OR renounce her God, join our group and become loving and accepting of all ways of life (except for people who believe in things, they are the worst!) I end by asking a mumbling series of rhetorical questions that prove how futile any attempt at a refutation would be.]

    Boom, that’s how it’s done b*tches!

    Bobby, out!

  8. Craig Burley | 20/01/2013 at 11:26 am |

    Well this is all rather dismaying. Law students would do well to remember that they are hoping to join a profession where civility between members is a core value, indeed a paramount one. Posts such as the last two (“Bobby” and “Bobby the Logician”) would have no place whatsoever in it.

    Let me first echo David Gruber’s point that there is no place, at all, for new law schools in Canada. As someone who regularly advises “pre-law” students about their future career and keeps abreast of developments in (and studies of) the legal job market, let me assure you that the oversaturation of law graduates (for it’s already here) is not a cyclical issue. We have too many law schools in this country, we have too many law graduates in this country, we have too many law students in this country. Current law schools deans need to do what they can to reduce their own size (something they are not doing, to their shame) but certainly a strong stance against new schools needs to be taken. I think this is the most important point of the proposal.

    Regarding TWU’s proposed Christian law school I have very serious concerns about the influence it will have on the health of our profession. Those of us who follow US legal developments closely have seen the pernicious influence of Christian law schools there, including the pernicious effect against civil liberties of a cabal (I think the word not too strong) of graduates from Christian law schools involved in rolling back civil liberties protections. Even more concerning, there have been widespread reports of Christian law schools in the United States counselling and teaching their students to place their beliefs above the requirement to obey the law, even requiring students to answer exam questions that they would defy court orders in order to prevent a gay parent from exercising her co-parenting right. The hatred of gays and lesbians (indeed of non-Christians generally), even running to professional misconduct, runs deep in the Christian legal education community in the US. We can do without such fomentation here in Canada. TWU’s proposed law school should, at the very least, utterly repudiate such pedagogy.

    Like the Deans I have serious concerns about attempts at social control of students and faculty by the school administration, as with the “Community Covenant” which I find odious. I think there is no place for it in the Canadian legal community. This is not because of any aspect of Christian teaching; I would oppose the imposition of any social “covenant” of any sort over students and faculty at any Canadian law school.

    The argument that Christians face a hostile environment in law schools, as charged by Ms. Epp-Buckingham, is laughable (I have studied and worked with a huge number of Christian lawyers, many of whom I am privileged to count among my close friends. They face no more hostility than any other social group.) It is this sort combative preoccupation that I think will damage our profession going forward. We have fought a long way uphill as a profession against bigotry and exclusion. That fight is not over yet. What the profession needs from all its members, Christians included, is a desire to come together in an open environment, not a desire to lob missiles at other groups and close ourselves off from each other.

  9. There is no need in British Columbia for another law school, especially after a new one just opened up. The question should not be “should there be a Christian law school?” The question should be “should Canada really follow the two-tier system of law schools in the US, and open up a private law school?” I don’t know of one good reason why the answer to the second question should be yes.

    As for Bobby’s comments, its unfortunate that his views are so prevalent, and so misinformed. Its like trying to understand the truth of America from watching only Fox news. “I don’t know of one Christian who approves of homosexuality”, and “You must not follow the Bible if you approve of homosexuality cause the Bible is so clearly against it” are superficial and wilfully blind opinions at best. A quick search will reveal that there are global Christian denominations, prominent ones that support full human rights and marriage equality for people of every sexual orientation. Lets just name the United Church, Anglican church, Episcopal church and Presbyterian church for starters. Plenty more, plus non-denominational ones. And they base this on their interpretation of the Bible. How? Because they take the Bible seriously, not literally. They approach it seriously, but considering historical, literary, cultural context. They spend time and effort with it, they don’t just believe what the first person on the street tells them. Many of my close friends who are ministers, pastors, and spiritual directors are gay, lesbian and transgender. They have been married, some haven’t. They have kids, they adopt kids. They serve communion and pray. Please don’t sideline this people, if anything is discriminatory, that is. To say them must choose between their sexual orientation and their faith – well, anyone who says that is acting just like some people in TWU might want to act. Second, faith and science are related and compatible in so many ways. Bobby, I would suggest you start looking into a lot of the literature that is out there, it might interest you. May I suggest you start with Boston University’s Science, Religion, and Philosophy program’s bibliographic resource section. This isn’t some marginalized view.

    Third, to say that Christian students do not face discrimination in current law schools is ridiculous. It is an unsafe emotional space, just as it still can be for people of different sexual orientations, muslims, or people with disabilities. That doesn’t mean we need a private law school, it means we need to work within our public law schools to have safer spaces, to not laugh and deride people who may believe in God, who may pray, who oppose pornography as degrading, who have reservations about the prevalence of abortion and how that is discriminatory on people with disabilities (80% of parents who are told their child has a likely chance of down’s syndrome abort. Selective abortion of a myriad of conditions is one of the silent, acceptable, and grave prejudices of our time).

    Is it not possible to have a civil dialogue anymore?

  10. Craig Burley | 30/01/2013 at 12:54 am |

    “who have reservations about the prevalence of abortion and how that is discriminatory on people with disabilities (80% of parents who are told their child has a likely chance of down’s syndrome abort. Selective abortion of a myriad of conditions is one of the silent, acceptable, and grave prejudices of our time).”

    It may be (it’s an argument I consider above my pay grade) but I’m not at all sure what this has to do with the legal profession or legal education. A foetus may contain many wonders but I’ve yet to encounter one capable of passing first year property.

    I think it would make more sense that in discussing important issues like discrimination within our profession, we stick to issues that impact the profession.

    However, I am 100% behind the issue of safer spaces as a means of providing the necessary support for people of all faiths and beliefs to succeed in law school. Leah is, in that sense, very right. And indeed if Christians are in need of it, we should seek to provide it amply.

  11. sbrasseur | 04/02/2013 at 4:24 pm |

    On est tous des atomes de carbones qui vive sur la planete terre.On est en 2013 allo les zoomain [humain] il faut se débarassé de ces croyances stupide qui nous empeche d’évolué

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