The fall term has begun under sunny skies at Trinity Western University (TWU); students, faculty and staff have much to be grateful for.
But there must be a lingering sense of disappointment in the wake of the June 15 Supreme Court of Canada decision about TWU’s proposed law school. And some supporters and members of the broader Christian community have expressed disappointment, as well, at a more recent decision by the school itself.
Trinity Western’s board decided August 9 to no longer require students to sign the Community Covenant that had received so much negative attention during the school’s several-year effort to launch a law school.
It is getting on to three months since the majority of Supreme Court Justices, in a 7 – 2 ruling, upheld decisions by the Law Societies of BC and Ontario not to approve TWU’s proposed law school. A major factor was that the school required all students to sign the Community Covenant, which includes the restriction of sexual intimacy to married heterosexual couples.
Though the majority acknowledged that the Court’s decision infringes upon religious freedoms protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they ruled restriction was reasonable given that law societies have a mandate to serve the public interest and provide open access to legal education.
For my initial article on the Supreme Court decision go here.
Business as usual at TWU
During an August 17 interview with Karen Stiller, senior publications editor for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), Trinity Western president Bob Kuhn addressed concerns about why the university has now decided to drop the requirement for students to sign the covenant, when it had been so central in its protracted legal battle.
Acknowledging that there has been some confusion about the reason for the board’s decision, he said that the application of the Community Covenant had been under discussion for several years, even before the lawsuit came along.
Kuhn said there was some “fairly animated discussion” among board members at their August 9 meeting, adding:
That discussion led to the conclusion that in order to clarify that Trinity Western does not discriminate in terms of enrolment for any person from any belief or any LGBTQ or other group, the decision was made to ensure that that message got through. . . .
We haven’t walked away from any principles here. We’ve recognized that in order to thrive we have to communicate with all manner of supporters, or even detractors, that we are not discriminating on the enrolment basis. . . . Having gone through a legal dispute, we were relying in large part on our 2001 decision, which came to exactly the opposite conclusion. . . . If you look at the British Columbia [Court of Appeal] decision, we were found to be on the right side of the law . . . So I don’t think you can simply say, well we went through five years and then we gave up everything that we fought for.
Faculty and staff, Kuhn said, are still required to sign the Statement of Faith and Community Covenant. He also noted that TWU has not made any plans, at this point, to reapply for a law school.
Commentary from groups and individuals sympathetic to Trinity Western revealed general concern about the Court’s decision and about the future of religious freedom in Canada. Several were supportive – thought not necessarily enthusiastic – regarding the school’s decision to no longer require students to sign the Community Covenant.
Archbishop Michael Miller
Archbishop Michael Miller said the Court’s decision undermines freedom in a June 15 statement:
I am saddened to see the Supreme Court of Canada’s Trinity Western University law school decision, with its potential to undermine freedom of religion, conscience and association in Canada.
The decision runs counter to Canada’s tradition of balancing rights and freedoms, and the implications of this decision for constitutional freedoms in Canada are severe. I agree with the ruling’s dissenting justices, who pointed out that the decision “betrays the promise of our Constitution that rights limitations must be demonstrably justified” and that the law societies’ powers are not absolute with respect to approving law programs.
He also supported Trinity Western’s decision regarding the Community Covenant, but provided some context when interviewed in an August 22 article in The B.C. Catholic (TWU’s dropping of Community Covenant raises questions):
The archdiocese’s intervention, made jointly with the Catholic Civil Rights League and the Faith and Freedom Alliance, “concerned freedom of religion, conscience and expression,” something “our constitutional history promotes,” said Archbishop Miller, noting the Supreme Court of Canada in its June TWU decisions “did not really take on those arguments.”
The archdiocese was not arguing for the covenant per se, he said, but for TWU’s right to have a covenant.
“The (Supreme Court’s) response really seemed to be (about) the objectionable nature of the covenant.”
The archbishop said dropping the covenant should make it easier for the proposed law school to get accreditation from the BC and Ontario law societies and for TWU to find support from the courts.
Go here for the full article.
Evangelical Fellowship of Canada
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) offered a diplomatic statement August 16:
The EFC has supported Trinity Western University through its multi-year journey to obtain accreditation for the Christian law school it was attempting to introduce into Canada. Canadian Christians have watched this journey carefully, and rightly considered this case a significant marker for religious freedom in Canada.
The EFC supports the freedom of TWU to set policies necessary to the pursuit of its mission as an evangelical university. We affirm TWU’s commitment to stay true to their mission and purpose, and provide a high-quality education to those who choose to attend.
Within the Canadian evangelical community and among other religious communities with educational institutions, there exists a wide range of practice around expectations of students studying at religious schools. We expect that a fruitful and respectful discussion around such policies will continue among Evangelicals as we work out together what it means to serve and be a witness in an ever-changing Canadian context.
Go here for the EFC’s timeline and commentary on the proposed Trinity Western law school
Ray Pennings / Convivium
For those not convinced that Trinity Western made the correct decision regarding the Community Covenant, Ray Pennings, co-founder and executive vice president of Cardus, wrote a useful comment: Standing up for Trinity Western’s board.
While expressing some personal doubt about the decision – and, like Miller, urging TWU to move ahead with the law school (“My preference would have been that the board remove the ‘mandatory’ aspect of the Covenant but then immediately demand the BC government and law societies grant the necessary approvals to let the law school go ahead.”), he stated:
What I do know is that the board members did not have an easy decision, and I am certain they approached their task with diligence, a sense of responsibility and prayer for wisdom to do what is right. Reasonable people of faith may differ.
What I don’t think reasonable people of faith may do is pontificate on social media with reductionist statements and impugn the integrity of the institution and its board. Whether you agreed with their stand or not, TWU, and the board members who ultimately had to make these missional decisions, decided to stand up all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada for their right to have a Community Covenant. In the process, they promoted the right of Christian organizations other than churches to define themselves by their religious identity, even as they sought to the serve the public.
Go here for the full comment.
Bumpy road ahead
If and when Trinity Western does decide to resume its quest for a law school, the path may not be as smooth as common sense or fair play would suggest.
Nothing has come easily for Trinity Western over the years. Robert Burkinshaw (Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at TWU until he retired) pointed this out in his excellent historical work Pilgrims in Lotus Land: Conservative Protestantism in British Columbia 1917 – 1981 (McGill Queen’s University Press).
Referring to “the sustained, hostile reaction from the media towards Trinity Western College’s bid for degree-granting status in 1979 and university status in 1985,” he said:
Even though only a handful of members of the legislature actually voted against the changes in status, considerable media criticism focused on the college’s traditional evangelical statement of faith and its conservative code of conduct . . .
I also recall Bob Kuhn’s words as he spoke before a House of Commons committee studying Islamophobia and “systemic racism and religious discrimination” last fall which concluded with this statement: “Trinity Western and its staff, students and faculty experience significant financial, emotional and systemic discrimination. It is getting worse, and it should not be.”
One example of that attitude (referred to by Kuhn above) was the attempt by the BC College of Teachers to thwart TWU’s plan for a teacher education program. After years of legal battles and the expenditure of tremendous sums of money, TWU prevailed at the Supreme Court in 2001.
An August 17 article in The Lawyer’s Daily suggested that “Lawyers foresee a bumpy road ahead if Trinity Western University (TWU) renews its failed bid to create Canada’s first religious law school.”
For example, Paul Saguil, vice chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Community (SOGIC), and a co-counsel at the Supreme Court for Start Proud, an intervener in support of the law societies, “told The Lawyer’s Daily Start Proud will remain ‘vigilant’ in respect of any future efforts by TWU to open and accredit a law school”:
While Start Proud cannot predict how any future [hypothetical at this point] application for accreditation by TWU would be treated by regulators, we will be monitoring any such developments closely and will continue to advocate for substantive equality for LGBTQ-plus persons in academic institutions, professional programs and workplaces across Canada. . . .
It would have been helpful, however, if TWU had further clarified that the covenant is also not mandatory for its staff and faculty, and that no one would be disciplined for any breaches thereof.
Go here for the full article.
Writing in The Catholic Register, Deborah Gyapong consulted a prominent religious freedom expert, who also saw potential troubles:
“Now that TWU has removed the mandatory nature of its community covenant – the sole objection of both the court and law societies – will regulators of the legal profession welcome a law school at the evangelical Christian university if TWU resurrects its proposal?” asked former Religious Freedom Ambassador Andrew Bennett, the director of Cardus Religious Freedom Institute.
“Or, will they find new grounds to object to the creation of Canada’s first Christian law school?”
Bennett reiterated his criticism of the Supreme Court’s “narrower, truncated view of the fundamental right to freedom of conscience and religion” in its TWU decision.
“This raises questions about how governments, other state and quasi-state actors in Canada will respect the rightful place of faith-based institutions in the public square,” he said.
Trinity Western has overcome many hurdles along the way without compromising its essential standards. That resolve may be tested more than ever in the future.
Many universities have strayed far from their Christian roots, so it is encouraging to hear that the president of Trinity Western is determined not to let that happen. During the interview referred to above, Karen Stiller asked Bob Kuhn what he would particularly like people to know about TWU’s decision.
I want our supporters, and our detractors for that matter, to be absolutely clear that we are not modifying our stance, we’re not modifying our mission and we’re not modifying our core doctrines that apply to this university. We will continue to stay the course, we will continue to be steadfast in our representation of Christ and his church. We will continue to welcome people from all walks of life, all persuasions to our university, so that we can have an opportunity to serve them and to provide higher education or advanced education from a Christian perspective and point of view and philosophy.
The ‘TWU reviews Community Covenant FAQ page deals directly with these concerns:
Is this decision an indication that you are moving away from your founding mission?
Not at all. We believe this will position us to better fulfill the mission of TWU. In fact, this season has encouraged us towards a renewed commitment and intentionality on the part of staff and faculty to ensure that our students continue to be positively impacted by evangelical Christian principles.
What measures are in place to ensure that TWU is not heading down the ‘slippery slope?
Spiritual life at TWU remains rooted in the same foundational evangelical principles it always has, and is continuing to grow stronger and more robust, year by year. Chapel services continue to take place every day, as one of the core rhythms of our spiritual life. Students continue to be heavily involved in ministry to each other and to the surrounding community. Discipleship and mentorship remain core elements to our development of godly Christian leaders. Student Life continues to actively pursue new and innovative ways to serve the student body in alignment with our Mission and Core Values, which remain unchanged.
Pray for Trinity Western and its leadership, especially as Bob Kuhn will be retiring next spring. He has done a stellar job of leading the university, but many challenges remain ahead.
Those with a particular interest in the legal issues surrounding Trinity Western or matters of religious freedom might want to check out the upcoming National Conference of the Christian Legal Fellowship (CLF), September 27 – 30, in New Westminster. Several CLF members have provided significant expertise in support of Trinity Western over the years.