Can religious freedom claims be taken seriously if the claimant is responsible for discrimination? In light of Trinity Western University’s ongoing battle for a law school, the question should effect concern across ideological lines.
Tomorrow, the Supreme Court of Canada will be asked to determine whether or not TWU has the right to have the graduates of its planned law school accredited as lawyers while it maintains its “Community Covenant.” The Covenant prohibits sexual intimacy outside of traditional marriage, even between LGBTQ+ individuals who are married.
Without underestimating the importance of this case, it’s equally important to avoid conflating the legal arguments, and the eventual legal decision, with the wider debate on religious freedom. Religious freedom, whether or not it is endangered in Canada, is not only a legal matter.
As an LGBTQ+ alumnus of Trinity Western, and one who enjoyed some of my best and suffered some of my worst experiences during my four years there, it’s a debate I continually find myself in. Through my conversations, and witnessing how TWU has lost in the court of public opinion and is now taking its fight to the Supreme Court of Canada, I can see why the state of religious freedom might indeed seem uncertain to some.
For example, a claim pervades both TWU President Bob Kuhn’s recent piece in Convivium and the larger fundamentalist evangelical discourse, that TWU’s current battle is emblematic of a religious freedom crisis in Canada.
To lay the context for those not completely familiar with TWU, there are two important documents for staff and students at Trinity Western. One is the “Statement of Faith,” which is signed by staff and faculty, that dictates what the university believes. It expresses TWU’s overarching worldview. Some may argue the Statement of Faith is an inclusive document as it allows signatories to write in some qualifications or clarifications. The other document is the "Community Covenant," which regulates the behaviour of all members of the TWU community. While the Statement of Faith may raise some eyebrows, it’s the Community Covenant that’s at issue in the current Supreme Court case.
The centre-point of the backlash against TWU is not what those at the school believe, but how they practice that belief. It may sound like I’m gearing up to say TWU had it coming trying to restrict the behaviour of adults. I don’t believe that actually. As much as it pains me, and many others, that TWU refuses to accommodate their LGBTQ+ students while expecting unreserved accommodation by law societies, they are, at the end of the day, a private institution. However, when TWU expects to be treated in the wider sphere like any other institution, especially any other public institution, that’s when I push back.
In order to make the claim, with integrity, that TWU’s predicament signals a religious freedom crisis in Canada, there needs to be evidence that a backlash against TWU could have arisen without their exclusion of LGBTQ+ persons through their Community Covenant. In this instance, TWU fails.
LGBTQ+ persons are disproportionately targeted by the religious freedom claims. For example, there’s been very little backlash over the ease at which couples can divorce, especially compared with half a century ago. Indeed, fundamentalist evangelicals boast about the same levels of divorce as their non-religious counterparts. Surely this poses a threat to “traditional Biblical marriage,” considering the apparently intertwined nature between religious freedom and heterosexual marriage, and the religious freedom of Christians in Canada.
Beyond that, TWU insiders know the Community Covenant, especially recently, is rarely enforced. Why go to such great lengths to defend it?
It seems that although this debate, outside of the legal context, often masquerades as a debate about religious freedom, the core issue is the treatment of, not just belief about, LGBTQ+ persons. Take the LGBTQ+ factor away from the equation and religious freedom might be doing better than we’re giving it credit for.
After all, Christian schools are still permitted in Canada, and churches still receive some of the best tax-breaks, even if those donations ultimately go to something that would otherwise not be rendered “charitable.” In such circumstance, it seems freedom of religion is being upheld.
The issue, then, is not so much the freedom of religious institutions, but what happens when religious institutions expect special consideration as they cross over into the public sphere. This, again, is not to say that religious freedom violations are only constituted if Church and State play by the rules of their separation. Many quote the 2001 B.C. Supreme Court Case, where TWU’s now well-regarded School of Education, faced similar obstacles.
One of the biggest differences between now and then, which TWU and their co-combatants inconsistently account for, is that gay marriage was not legal in 2001. Indeed, the church’s rules were more coherent with the State’s. That is less the case now, and this widening gap between Church and State leads to a different conclusion than endangerment of religious freedom.
It’s important to take consistent account of whether religious freedom is truly in jeopardy. Additionally, it’s important that the Christian community’s inability to forge a path forward with the LGBTQ+ community is not treated as an emblem of religious freedom more generally.
Christian freedom might—strong emphasis on the “might”—be in jeopardy, although even that claim must take account of the multiple Christian denominations that don’t find themselves in this fight, such as select Anglican Churches, the United Church, and others. But even if we’re going to talk about Christian Freedom, let’s ensure there is legitimate concern outside of the relationship with gender and sexual minorities. Sounding the alarm for religious freedom in Canada is a substantive and multivalent claim, and one that requires evidence that is of the same character, not simply anecdotal.
Read our other Trinity Western University alumni profile here.
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