BBC puts half the facts in its Trinity Western lede, adding note of confusion to this story


When you look at prestige brand names in the world of news, it's hard to find institutions that can match the global impact of The New York Times and BBC News.

Journalists here in America are constantly aware of the impact of the Times, in terms of shaping the priorities of other newspapers from coast to coast. It's hard to find a small circle of journalists with more power than the editors who decide what goes on A1 in the Times.

However, anyone who has traveled around the world and gazed at hotel-room televisions knows that the BBC is omnipresent and very powerful just about everywhere.

Thus, let me add an editorial note to my GetReligion colleague Julia Duin's report -- "Trinity Western law school gets nixed, while the Canadian news coverage is mixed" -- focusing on how Canadian journalists covered the Trinity Western University decision at the Supreme Court of Canada.

In particular, I would like to focus on how this short report produced by the gatekeepers at the BBC handled a key detail in the community covenant (or as the CBC described it, the "so-called community covenant") that defines the doctrinal standards that guide life on that evangelical Protestant campus.

The headline on this report is certainly blunt, but it is accurate: "Canada's Supreme Court rules LGBT rights trump religious freedom." This brings us to the story's lede:

Canada's top court has ruled in favour of denying accreditation to a Christian law school that banned students from having gay sex.

Now, let me say right up front that this statement is accurate, sort of, and half-way true.

The statement is true, but it doesn't give readers an accurate picture of the content or the intent of this school's doctrinal covenant. The question: Have gay students been singled out? 

It's also crucial to know that all voluntary associations have some kind of community covenant that defines their borders. I would assume that few LGBTQ groups allow ex-gays to take part or to compete for leadership posts. Few environment groups, these days, welcome activists whose goal is to use the group as a platform for work opposing global-warming theories. Would a Muslim student fellowship welcome Zionists? And so forth and so on.

So let's take a look at some key passages in the Trinity Western doctrinal covenant, which takes seconds to find online:

The TWU community covenant involves a commitment on the part of all members to embody attitudes and to practise actions identified in the Bible as virtues, and to avoid those portrayed as destructive. Members of the TWU community, therefore, commit themselves to:
* cultivate Christian virtues, such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, compassion, humility, forgiveness, peacemaking, mercy and justice.

As many newspaper editors would say: Yada-yada-yada.

We all know that this Bible stuff is beside the point when it comes to discussions of tolerance and diversity in higher education. So let's get to the sex. At Trinity Western, students who chose to attend this school as asked to:

* observe modesty, purity and appropriate intimacy in all relationships, reserve sexual expressions of intimacy for marriage, and within marriage take every reasonable step to resolve conflict and avoid divorce.

Ah, but what does "marriage" mean?

Well, since this is a traditional Christian school, "marriage" means what "marriage" has meant among Christians (as well as Orthodox Jews, Muslims and many others) for several thousand years. There are, I am sure, liberal Christian schools that have different standards and, hopefully, their community covenants are upfront and clear about their doctrines. They have every right to teach and practice their faith, too.

Students who chose to attend Trinity Western vow to avoid:

* sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman. 

Now, in terms of its impact on campus life, that statement would primarily -- in terms of statistics and demographics -- mean that the school is asking straight students to avoid premarital sex. It's a safe assumption that the majority of students on this evangelical campus are heterosexuals and face sexual temptations of various kinds (as noted by the doctrinal covenant's statement on porn).

Now, since Trinity Western has embraced a traditional Christian view of marriage, this also means that married couples (hello staff and faculty) are expected to avoid adultery. Yes, this statement would also mean that gay students on this one campus are expected not to have sex.

So, statistically speaking, was the primary goal of this doctrinal covenant to prevent gay students from having sex? 

Yes, it is accurate to say that this is one form of (trigger warning, biblical language ahead) sin that Trinity Western officials are striving to oppose.

So with that in mind, let's look at that BBC lede again, in context:

Canada's top court has ruled in favour of denying accreditation to a Christian law school that banned students from having gay sex.
Friday's ruling against Trinity Western University in British Columbia was closely watched by both religious freedom and gay rights advocates.
The university made students promise not to have extra-marital or gay sex.
The Supreme Court found that protecting LGBT students from discrimination trumped religious freedom.

My question: Why split out part of the truth as the basis for the lede? The story goes on to note the full impact of the doctrinal statement on sex. For example: 

Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia law societies denied the school accreditation, on the grounds that it required all students to sign a covenant binding them to a code of conduct which banned sex outside the confines of heterosexual marriage.

Why not just state the complete facts in the lede, especially since many readers only glance at headlines and the opening of stories? With a few edits, BBC could have said: "Canada's top court has ruled in favour of denying accreditation to a Christian law school that required students to promise not to have premarital, extra-marital or gay sex."

By the way, does this mean that in Canada it is also wrong to ban straight students from having premarital sex or married students from committing adultery? Do only LGBTQ students have the legally protected right to premarital sex and adultery? Just asking.

Also, if a school recognized gay marriage, could it then require all unmarried students to avoid premarital sex, requiring celibacy for unmarried gay or straight students? 

In other words, what is the crucial point in this story, an offensive doctrinal statement about gay sex or one about premarital sex? 

Writing a lede that offers a warped view of the doctrinal statement's content and goals doesn't help readers understand the ultimate outcome. If journalists know the whole truth, why put a half-truth in the lede?

Meanwhile, Trinity Western has been pulled in line with every other law school in Canada -- thus promoting diversity in the field of law. There is no room for traditional Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Protestant or Muslim (etc., etc.) lawyers in Canada.

Oh, can lawyers educated in religious schools in the USA practice in Canada? Could a graduate of Brigham Young University's law school -- perhaps one of many BYU grads, female and male, who have clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court -- practice law north of the border? 

Just asking. There may be more stories for the BBC to cover, based on the contents of this short report.

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