Everybody gains an education, but not in the way they may have wanted to, given the recent decision in the most important legal case determining religious freedom in Canada of the past decade.
On Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada announced a pair of 7-2 rulings that dealt a blow to Trinity Western University’s hopes of running a nationally accredited law school. It’s a result that has been disquieting to both sides represented in court as it pitted two important societal values against each other: the freedom of religion and the promotion of equality. This is the messy, imperfect work of living with personal beliefs and convictions that must fit the Charter Rights and Freedoms that shapes Canada.
A portion of Christian freedom of expression loses big time in this ruling, which implies that in Canada, sexual identity trumps religious identity. Christian belief understands that sexuality is informed by the God of the Bible. So when TWU, a Christian university in Langley, B.C., wanted the ability to train accredited lawyers, it meant those students would have to sign the school’s community covenant to enroll. The covenant prohibits having sex in any way except the context of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Law Societies in Nova Scotia, Ontario, and B.C. argued that such a voluntary surrender of sexual rights discriminated against Charter freedoms.
Our Supreme Court justices decided the TWU community covenant disqualifies graduates from mandatory law society accreditation. TWU’s community covenant has a host of other lifestyle conditions, such as prohibition of harassment, verbal intimidation, gossip, obscene language, lying, and drunkenness.
An instigating lawyer in this case, Clayton Ruby, told me in an interview, that he had reached out to contest TWU’s legal application because he bristled at the isolationism he felt it was crafting. Mr. Ruby drew out memories of how Jewish belief was so prejudiced against in Canada, that Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto was created in 1923 as a place where Jewish doctors could volunteer to practise medicine under Hebraic sensitivities. Surely, Mr. Ruby opined, we do not want a Canada that fosters isolationist communities like Canada had in the 1920s. That’s where I end my agreement with Mr. Ruby. People can act personally on profoundly different beliefs of behaviour, but that does not mean they are isolationists. Christian beliefs, including those of love and compassion, are meant to be integrated in all aspects people’s lives, and evident in their relationships with others.
“This decision marks a lost opportunity for Canadians. While we are saddened the Supreme Court does not see room in Canada for a small Christian university that holds traditional Christian values to open a law school, we also feel today’s decision impacts the contribution faith communities add to Canadian diversity” said Earl Philips, executive director of Trinity Western University’s proposed school of law.
So here could be the gain for TWU, and the millions of Christian Canadians who have watched this Supreme Court case with utmost concern: It shakes us up on our own isolationist preferences. The ruling challenges us that to fully communicate the love of God for people, no signature is required. Will the values faith communities create and abide by change if participation is voluntary, rather than signed? Signed codes of conduct exist for a wide variety of public institutions and schools in Canada, and that’s why this one was worth fighting for on the grounds of fairness.
There was another time Christian belief and TWU’s community covenant headed to the Supreme Court. That was in 2001 when judges ruled 8-1 that the school had the right to graduate teachers. There have been more than 400 TWU graduated teachers working in education since that ruling, and no complaints of discrimination. The teachers illustration is the way we wish Canada to be – the organic expressions of distinct beliefs working side-by-side in caring for our country. To restrict Canadians from a profession or education because of beliefs and identity makes for a shallow freedom and does nothing to foster the kind of good-neighbourliness we’d like Canada to stand for.