Community Covenant now not required, but Trinity Western will ‘stay the course’

Trinity Western University president Bob Kuhn has been reassuring supporters (and detractors) that the university’s standards have not changed.

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.

Go here for the full podcast, here for the official TWU statement regarding the Community Covenant and here for FAQs on the issue.

Helpful guides

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.

Stand firm

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.

He responded:

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.

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4 comments for “Community Covenant now not required, but Trinity Western will ‘stay the course’

  1. I do not understand the Christian community’s blind devotion to TWU, which is not even an excellent academic institution by any stretch of the imagination – and doesn’t even rank in Maclean’s top rankings. Do you know what is actually eroding religious freedoms? Conservative Christians who are hiding out in the Christian ghetto, selfishly cloistering themselves off from the “world” and refusing to show love to their neighbours by actively engaging in public society, attending top-ranked institutions like SFU and UVic.

    You have the freedom to attend law school as a Christian – so why don’t you go? What are you so afraid of? Declining church growth is the direct result of Christians opting for cradle to grave Christian education and employment. Have you been the only Christian in an entire lecture hall filled with non-believers? I have.

    So, thanks brothers and sisters in Christ for that. I really appreciate all the support there when I stood up for my faith – guess you were busy hiding out at TWU. Seriously, Christians care more now about this second-rate institution, TWU, than they care about loving – and meeting their neighbours. Stop defending TWU!

    TWU also creates a lot of problems for its neighbouring churches. Have you ever tried attending Fraser Valley churches? TWU alum flock to each other like a special club – they have no use for outsiders. So, well done Christians! You have emptied out secular institutions of Christians and you have made churches impossible to attend because you are all so insular.

    So, yeah, let’s get that TWU law school going soon. Then the TWU medical school. We need a Christian stamp of approval on all of our professional programs because Christians are now too weak in the spirit to socialize with non-Christians. But, oh, oh, what’s that? You’re willing to work for the public? Earn money off the public? Gotta love that double standard.

    • Thank you for your comment, but I do think you have made a number of unwarranted assumptions.

      For example, I wrote the article and I very much appreciate Trinity Western. But I grew up entirely in the public school system. I attended and graduated from UBC Law School as a Christian. I did not carry on in law, but several of my Christian classmates are out there working as lawyers in the broader community. One of those classmates happens to be Bob Kuhn, who has worked as a lawyer for many years before becoming president of TWU.

      Independent Christian schools are not hiding their students from the surrounding culture. Here is the first sentence about a major Cardus study on that topic:

      “Private education does not, as some stereotypes might have it, create a secluded, privileged class that is largely uninterested in the common good. In fact, [a] 2016 survey found the opposite to be true for non-government schools.”

      Go here for the full story:

      Also, while some churches are insular, many others are not. You must be aware of the leading role churches have taken in welcoming refugees, working with the community in the Downtown Eastside, visiting prisoners, hosting community gardens and so much else.

      I hope you will take part in a local church and encourage its members to join you in engaging with the community. There is much more we can do.

      • You assume I haven’t been to private Christian school. I have, and it was the worst experience of my life. Public schools and public universities are WONDERFUL in comparison. Many of those people [at private Christian schools] come from the most sheltered lives imaginable, many have never met anyone outside the Christian bubble. Many of those people are filled with rage towards Christianity because it has been imposed upon them by their families.

        Things have changed a lot – because so many Christians have pulled their children from public education we have a large Christian “ghetto” and we have public schools where people never meet Christians. TWU is fostering this by creating professional schools that serve this group. They never, ever have to intersect non-Christians. Nor do they want to. They have “fear of contamination” of the outside world.

        I am guessing you live in Vancouver? Well, take a trip out to the Fraser Valley where so many people do attend TWU and then settle here. TWU grads are often unbearable to be around. If large groups of them decide to attend your Church, any non-TWU alum are treated like outsiders. TWU grads will come right up to your face and say, “TWU is the BEST. We are the best.”

        What do you think? I’ve had this happen to me MANY times. Do you think that is a fantastic Christian witness? How do you think it feels when you can’t go to church any more because you are an alum of a public university? Do you think it’s Christlike to go around saying you are the BEST? Do you think it’s a sacred use of the altar of Christ to promote TWU? What do you think you are saying to non-TWU alum when this happens? We have turned TWU into some type of qualification for being a Christian.

        Show me in the Bible where it says private Christian education makes you a better Christian. Many Christians who only went to public schools have a fantasy that Christian education is a type of utopia. It isn’t. Knowing what an analytical and creative thinker you are Flyn, you wouldn’t have survived at TWU – you’re too smart and creative for such a monocultural intellectual environment.

        Also, TWU, being expensive, will pretty much take anyone, regardless of GPA. Just have a little thinksie on that one. What do you think? Do you think it’s a thriving intellectual community at TWU – with all those entitled kiddos coming from sheltered homes? who have never met anyone other than people exactly like them? who think just like them?

        Also by the time people reach adulthood, if they want to be servants of society through nursing, teaching and especially with law – you’d think they would be able to be adults, stand strong in their faith and get out there and toughen themselves up by meeting a large cross-section of society. TWU makes Christians seem like wimps.

        Defend TWU all you like, but Christian schools are indeed contributing to the decline of Christianity in Canada, in my opinion. Seriously, for those of us who are alum of public universities, we can barely attend church in the Fraser Valley thanks to the insular, nasty culture TWU fosters.

        This is the culture that tells CHRISTIANS they are the best. Tell me, what does Jesus say about thinking you are the BEST? Do you think Jesus walked around going up to people and telling others that He was better than others? If you want further support that this is indeed what TWU grads are told about themselves, I’m happy to provide TWU grads who will confirm this.

        I would love to take part in a local church and encourage them to serve the community–that would be awesome. In fact here in the Fraser Valley we have been through at least 15+ Churches trying to find Christians who actually care about the community. Okay, here in the Fraser Valley, Christianity is a social club, it is not about Christ. Most of the Churches, filled with some of the most privileged, entitled Christians you’ve ever met–and many of them TWU alum – have ZERO interest in helping the community.

        Also they are AFRAID of the outside community – they are afraid because they have only been to Christian schools – so they think the outside community is a giant orgy where everyone is out to contaminate them.

        I’m sorry to tell you this Flyn, but I don’t think you would fit in out here in Fraser Valley Churches either. They can SMELL that you’ve been to public school. They can also tell when you’re a creative thinker. And they don’t like outsiders. Good luck to Christians! Way to go in creating the demise of Christianity in public life.

        That study you quoted is not based upon the reality of what happens when you live in the Bible belt. To be honest, I wish I wasn’t a Christian! I didn’t sign up to join a “club” – but that’s what Christianity in the Fraser Valley is now, and TWU, in my opinion, is contributing to this.

        • Thanks C. One cannot really argue with a cri de coeur.

          However, I have met, spoken to and read about many impressive Trinity Western students, grads and teachers. I also worked in Langley for many years, meeting many good church people from all over the Fraser Valley. As well, I have known many people who loved their Christian school experience, without being narrow or stuck up.

          I pray that some, at least, of those who do need to hear your challenge will hear it, and will change their ways. And that you will come to appreciate some of the people I am referring to.


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