Listen: Ray Pennings in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
A decision by the Canadian Supreme Court may have far reaching implications for religious freedom.
The situation of the Trinity Western (TWU) Law School in Canada was flagged as a concern during last year’s Australian postal vote on legalising same sex marriage.
Christian values discriminatory
Canada’s highest court has now backed the decision by Canadian law societies to preemptively deny accreditation to law graduates from TWU . This effectively prevents them practising law and has halted plans to establish the law school. The law societies voted to refused to accredit students because they believe the Christian values of the University are discriminatory – particularly in relation to the LBGQTI community. As journalist, Julia Duin writes in Get Religion, “Creating a legal atmosphere in which graduates from certain universities are blacklisted because of they defend centuries of religious doctrine is a fascinating one and something that will not go away.”
Traditional Christian marriage
Canada is a jurisdiction where same sex marriage is legal. Trinity Western University (TWU), like many faith based institutions, requires all students to sign a statement of mission and faith. This ‘Community Covenant’ includes the view that sexual activity should not take place outside marriage. The document backs the traditional Christian view of marriage as being between one man and one woman.
First faith based law school
TWU had long planned to run a law degree, starting in 2016. It would have been the first faith-based law school in the country. In the US there are many such schools, many highly rated, for instance University of Notre Dame, Baylor University and Regent University law schools. In Australia there are also large faith based Universities such as The University of Notre Dame Australia and the Australian Catholic University and many smaller Christian colleges like Excelsior College. Interestingly, Trinity litigated a similar case in 2001 when there was a move to bar the school from starting a teachers college.
Quality not the question
The Canadian law societies took their stand against the TWU law degree because they believed the school’s position on traditional marriage and sex outside traditional marriage was discriminatory. This was despite the provisions for religious freedom which are part of the 2005 Act legalising same sex marriage in Canada.
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The law degree already had provisional approval from the Canadian education minister and none of the opponents of the establishment of the law school took issue with the quality of the course content or teachers. As the TWU website says “… unanticipated and unprecedented opposition arose. The objection concerned not the quality of Trinity Western’s education, but the way in which the TWU Christian community chooses to live, work and study together, sharing traditional Christian values.”
The Court decides
The case has made it’s way through the Canadian courts for a number of years and the Canadian Supreme Court (something like Australia’s High Court) handed has now handed down their decision. In what seems an odd decision, judges found that while TWU’s religious freedom had been affected, the court would uphold the law societies’ decision not to approve the law school.
The decision means the law school can’t go ahead. It was greeted with disappointment from TWU. Their statement says “In a very long complex ruling, with four sets of reasons, eight of nine judges agree that TWU’s religious freedom is violated but the majority still uphold the law societies’ decision not to approve the law school.”
Discrimination claim trumps belief
“Until now, Canada has encouraged the rich mosaic created by the diversity of views, race, gender, and belief systems. Sadly, the Supreme Court has decided that this does not extend to a law school at Trinity Western University. Regrettably, the Supreme Court’s decision limits the contribution of faith communities to Canadian society. Above all, the university sought to graduate caring and trustworthy lawyers ready to represent and advocate for all Canadians, regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual identification.” the TWU statement says.
The university says it is reviewing the ruling and considering next steps.
Threat to religious freedom?
Is the Canadian Supreme Court Decision a sign of dangers ahead for Christians who want protection to freely live their religious beliefs? Cardus is an respected Canadian think tank. It has a mission to translate the richness of the Christian faith tradition into the public square for the common good. The organisation emphasises that all people can live together well in difference. They operate to enlarge the conversation on key policy issues, producing independent research and contributing to public debate.
In their statement regarding the TWU decision Cardus says, in part “Canadians of all faiths will have less latitude to publicly dissent from majority opinions on social issues that clash with their beliefs. Now more than ever we need a robust and clear defence of freedom of conscience and religion and public faith.”
Ray Pennings co-founded Cardus in 2000 and is the Executive Vice President. Ray is a respected voice in Canadian politics, and a frequent media commentator, pundit and critic. He discussed the TWU ruling on Open House with Stephen O’Doherty.
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