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Students walk outside the library at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C.Courtesy of Trinity Western University

Clash of freedoms

Despite its successes in court, Trinity Western University still draws fire for discriminating against LGBT students

By Pieta Woolley

Sitting at a campus picnic table, two young women are deep in conversation, their textbooks open, their long dark-blond hair growing frizzy in the light fall mist. The duo shift, tucking their desert boots under them. Taking each other’s hands, they close their eyes, bow their heads and begin to speak in unison.

Here at Trinity Western University, spontaneous public prayer is as ordinary as the drizzling rain. This is a school where a gentle, respectful Christian ethos is intentionally cultivated. The campus is clean and well maintained. Students dress modestly. Everyone says hello and holds doors open for each other. A daily chapel service in the gymnasium draws hundreds of students.

Located 30 minutes east of Vancouver in the Fraser Valley — British Columbia’s Bible Belt — TWU has grown over the past three decades from a small Bible college into Canada’s largest private Christian university, with 4,000 students, 42 undergraduate programs and 16 master’s programs. Annual university rankings by Maclean’s magazine consistently give the Langley, B.C., school an A+ for quality of teaching and learning. Nationwide, however, TWU is probably best known for discriminating against gay and lesbian students, a practice that recently landed it in the Supreme Courts of British Columbia and Nova Scotia, and in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

In 2012, TWU’s administration proposed a law school — the fourth in B.C. and the only private law school  in Canada. Both the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education approved it.

The Law Society of British Columbia also approved the school in April 2014. But after facing harsh criticism, it voted in October 2014 to reverse its approval — a move that effectively barred TWU’s law school grads from practising in that province. Two months later, the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education also revoked its original approval of the school due to the legal uncertainties created by the law society. Within days, TWU announced it was taking the law society to court.

At issue is TWU’s Community Covenant, a five-page document that students, faculty and administrators must sign to become a part of TWU. Along with avoiding violent video games, alcohol on campus, pornography and other ills, the covenant states that everyone should voluntarily abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” Ergo, lesbian and gay students — whether single or married — are not allowed to have sex while attending TWU. It does not mean, as Maclean’s columnist Emma Teitel flippantly wrote in 2014, that “gays need not apply.” Everyone is welcome. Just no sex.

That the Community Covenant discriminates against gay and lesbian students (and perhaps against all unmarried students) isn’t really in question. The lingering dilemma is whether this private university, which receives no government funding, has the right to ban gay sex based on religion, and whether, as a result of its practices, its graduates deserve to be shunned by other institutions. In other words, whether freedom of religion protections in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms should trump freedom from discrimination clauses in the same.

TWU took all three objecting law societies to court in their respective provinces, winning against the Nova Scotia law society and losing to Ontario’s. Both decisions have been appealed. The B.C. Supreme Court heard TWU’s case against the B.C. law society in August. Late last year, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Christopher Hinkson ruled in TWU’s favour, stating that the B.C. law society’s decision infringes on the school’s freedom of religion.

At press time, the B.C. law society hadn’t appealed Hinkson’s ruling. But its president, Ken Walker, told the Vancouver Sun it would be “reviewing the reasons for judgment carefully and consulting with our legal counsel regarding next steps.”

TWU, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church, still hopes to open its law school as soon as the various appeals are settled. Canada’s other provincial law societies have all approved the proposed school.

The battle to ensure that its law graduates will be recognized echoes a similar Supreme Court of Canada suit 15 years ago. In 2001, TWU went head-to-head with the British Columbia College of Teachers over a teacher education program at the university. The fear then was that teachers graduating from the school would discriminate against LGBT students in their future classrooms. TWU won and has been certifying teachers ever since — with no discriminatory incidents reported among its alumni.

However, in its recent arguments to the B.C. Supreme Court, the Law Society of British Columbia was adamant that as long as the covenant is in place, TWU should not graduate lawyers. “There are more than three law school applicants for every available law school seat,” it wrote in a statement. Given the previous Supreme Court of Canada decision acknowledging that members of the LGBT community “would not be tempted to apply for admission, and could only sign the [covenant] at a considerable personal cost,” the statement concluded that “approving the proposed law school would create two-tiered access to the profession, where some have access to all law school seats in the province, and others do not.”

Celebrated Vancouver lawyer barbara findlay helped the B.C. law society prepare its Supreme Court case and has spent the past four decades routing out discrimination against the queer community. To her, TWU’s practice of forcing gay students to shelve their sexuality while on campus is easy to name: it’s hate.

Over the course of her lifetime, findlay (who spells her name without capitals) has witnessed discrimination against lesbian and gay Canadians largely evaporate. She credits the law. 

“It’s my observation that the last discriminatory piece of legislation was to deny marriage,” she says. “Once the fight against that was over [in 2005], I observed that there was a sea change in social attitudes. When I was a teen, it was considered both a crime and a mental illness to be gay or lesbian. After same-sex marriage, the idea that queer people are in any way different or wrong or sick or evil is treated as homophobia and is not something that you’d see in polite company anymore.”

The effects of TWU’s discrimination extend beyond campus, she adds. That Canada allows an anti-gay university to exist legitimizes anti-gay ideas, which seep into the culture and must be continually unlearned.

We meet over coffees at Ethical Addictions, TWU’s basement café. At just 20, Liesel Giesbrecht is within months of finishing her bachelor’s degree in political science. With a 3.98 GPA, she’ll have her choice of law schools in both Canada and the United States. Had TWU’s law school opened next fall as originally planned, she would be looking forward to another degree from here. Instead, she’s getting ready to move.

“I knew I could expect a quieter environment here for studying,” she says, explaining her attraction to no-sex, no-alcohol TWU. She hails from Coaldale, Alta., where her father is a sugar beet farmer and her mother — who came to Canada as a refugee from El Salvador — works in early childhood education. Her family is Mennonite.

She does believe the Bible is “quite clear” that sexual intimacy is for heterosexual marriage only. However, she reveals, several friends here at TWU are gay and lesbian. It’s no secret, she says, that there’s a substantial queer community on campus, though “no one is waving rainbow flags.” How to include the LGBT community, how to interpret the Bible and how to balance competing rights in Canada are all vigorously discussed in her classes, she says.

“Tolerance is a huge principle I’ve learned here,” she says. “I would be horrified if someone who identified as gay or lesbian thought I hated them or who they are. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The presence of a queer community on campus is well documented. In 2013, TWU student Bryan Sandberg came out in the student newspaper, Mars’ Hill. “I am only one of numerous gay and lesbian students who have had very positive experiences being welcomed and loved by this amazing community,” he wrote. In 2014, he started a support and advocacy group for gay students and allies on campus.

Several Mars’ Hill articles have also pushed for greater understanding and dialogue. A pro-gay editorial from January 2015 compares today’s Christian soul-searching on sexual orientation to past inner grappling with issues such as residential schools and slavery. The author states, “I believe that the modern Church must begin to undergo this same process of reconciliation with the LGBT community.”

TWU’s pre-law adviser and longtime political science professor John Dyck notes that the Evangelical church is actively wrestling with questions about same-sex Christians and same-sex marriage. “I have some friends that are gay and some relatives that are gay,” says Dyck, who is a Mennonite from southern Manitoba. “And my experience is that when church leaders have those who are close to them come out, over time, their dogmatic positions tend to mellow.”

The same is true for TWU. A decade ago, the Community Covenant forbade homosexuality on campus, but that clause is now gone. Recognizing the presence of LGBT students, the covenant restricts sexual activity, not sexual identity.

In 2013, University of Victoria law professor Mary Anne Waldron published Free to Believe: Rethinking Freedom of Conscience and Religion in Canada, arguing in favour of letting the TWUs of Canada keep their discriminatory peccadilloes.

First, she said in an interview before the ruling, the legal arguments are very complicated — which is why the TWU law school case wound up in the B.C. Supreme Court.

Second, she continued, the case will set a legal precedent for how we go about accommodating religious and cultural diversity in this country. Whether Quebec’s public servants may wear symbols of their religion. Whether doctors can be forced to provide assisted suicides. Whether daycare centres can require children to be vaccinated. Whether churches can offer sanctuary to failed refugee claimants. All of these questions share the same legal quandary: how much freedom do individuals and institutions have to express their faith?

“When I was growing up 50 years ago, it wasn’t that common that you’d meet someone with a different religion,” said Waldron, a United-to-Catholic convert. “But we’re now in a social situation where uniformity of belief is gone. How do we live together? . . . It seems like a really good short-term solution to say, ‘TWU, you shouldn’t exclude gays and lesbians.’ Is that the solution that, in the long run, will bring us a society of openness, peace and freedom, given the conflicts?”

In other words, TWU and the Law Society of British Columbia carried the weight of one of Canada’s biggest questions on their shoulders: freedom of religion versus freedom from discrimination. Even with the B.C. Supreme Court ruling in favour of TWU, it would be surprising if this were the final word in this complex and evolving conversation.

Pieta Woolley is a journalist in Powell River, B.C.

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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