Coming of Age: Trinity Western and Canadian Law

Trinity Western University is a private institution in Langley, B.C. that provides a “whole person, Christ-centred approach to education”.   Their mission statement clearly defines their goals as both a learning institution and the role they expect their students to fulfill in society:

“As an arm of the Church, to develop godly Christian leaders: positive, goal-oriented university graduates with thoroughly Christian minds; growing disciples of Jesus Christ who glorify God through fulfilling the Great Commission, serving God and people in the various marketplaces of life.” 

A prospective student to Trinity Western must be willing to sign a “Community Covenant” through which the student agrees to adhere to a code of conduct befitting the University’s Christian standards.  This covenant includes a specific item that students will voluntarily abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and woman”.

The Civil Marriage Act (Bill C-38) received Royal Assent in Canada on July 20, 2005.  The Act formally acknowledged the rights of same-sex couples to marry in Canada.  This has been the law of the country for almost 13 years.

The issue with the Covenant is not the first of the aforementioned statement; one is specifically targeted at a group of individuals and the other would apply to all students equally.  The first item, regarding sexual intimacy, can be equally applied to both same sex and heterosexual intimacy outside of a marriage bond.  As this applies equally to all students, it is non-discriminatory and well within the rights of the school to request it of its students.

The second part defines “marriage (as) between a man and woman” which contradicts the Civil Marriage Act (2005) under Canadian law.  The expectation is that if a prospective gay, but legally married, student wishes to attend the University, they will abstain from marital relations.   It was the discriminatory factor regarding marriage which first raised an issue for Canadian law societies.

Two law societies initially denied accreditation; the Law Society of Upper Canada in Ontario, and the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society. The Law Society of B.C. eventually joined them after first agreeing to grant accreditation.  Trinity Western took the cases to court in all three provinces.

The Provincial Court of Nova Scotia ruled in favour of Trinity Western and the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society did not appeal the decision. The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the Law Society of Upper Canada (Ontario). The Court of Appeal in B.C. ruled in Trinity Western’s favour.  Trinity appealed the ruling in Ontario and the LSBC appealed the ruling in B.C. which brought the case to the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC).

Photo: schuettlaw.com

On Friday, the SCC delivered their ruling on the case, 7-2 in favour of the law societies.

I was lucky (?) enough to be involved in a discussion spanning three days (and counting) with three people who disagree with the SCC’s decision.  To me, the entire issue boiled down to legal ethics.  Signing the Community Covenant, which makes a claim that is incompatible with the law (the current one in Canada, not the biblical one) showed either a disdain for the laws in Canada or a complete willingness to disregard them.  Neither option is a promising beginning for a future lawyer.

Another argument, and one that was brought forward by legal experts as well, is that religious freedom was under attack (I searched and have yet to find a code of conduct in any Canadian school which forbids students from practicing the religion of their choice, in private, on their own time).  In the case of Trinity Western though, it would appear they have a particular vendetta against gay people.

Back in 2001, Trinity Western applied for an education program to train teachers.  The British Columbia College of Teachers (BCCT) denied it based upon their Covenant of the time which specifically stated a list of “Practices that are biblically condemned” such as “sexual sins including… homosexual behaviour”.  The SCC ruled, 8-1, that Trinity Western, as a private school, was within its rights to have this covenant but if these views were brought to a teaching environment, the BCCT would then have the authority to act.  That was before the Civil Marriage Act (2005) however.

In response to the issues facing students of Trinity Western, a petition has been created by a group called ONE TWO asking the University to “make our community a more loving, accepting and safe place for all students”.  The University said that it “may consider the wording” within its covenant but has, for now, placed its plans for a law program on hold.  Some religious institutions are discovering that they must change with the times in order to remain relevant with a dwindling membership. For the three people who I’ve been arguing with for days, only one thing comes to mind:

“Adapt or perish; now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative”. ~H.G. Wells

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