I’ve been reporting for some time now on the legal woes that Trinity Western University has been having with its bid to be the first Christian law school in Canada. Like many other Christian colleges, it has a doctrinal covenant students must sign that includes a promise to abstain from sex outside of traditional marriage.
LGBTQ rights folks decided that this doctrinal stand was rampant discrimination and were successful at dislodging TWU’s bid, even as the battle went to the country’s highest court.
Then Trinity moved the chairs around a bit this past week.
The best-written article on this change was from the National Post with a head reading: “Still seeking law school, Trinity Western drops sexual ‘covenant’ for students." It ran along with a sympathetic YouTube video about TWU, which appears with this blog post.
A Christian university in British Columbia that lost a Supreme Court battle to create an evangelical law school has dropped its controversial requirement for all students to sign a contract that forbids any sex outside heterosexual marriage.
Many observers, including some who intervened in the court case, saw this as a preliminary step toward a renewed push for an accredited law school. Trinity Western University, in Langley outside Vancouver, first announced plans to offer legal degrees in 2012, only to find itself locked in litigation with law societies in Ontario and B.C., which refused to accredit it.
The school’s new motion, passed last week but only released Tuesday, reads: “In furtherance of our desire to maintain TWU as a thriving community of Christian believers that is inclusive of all students wishing to learn from a Christian viewpoint and underlying philosophy, the Community Covenant will no longer be mandatory as of the 2018-19 Academic year with respect to admission of students to, or continuation of students at, the University.”
The decision removes the primary problem considered by the Supreme Court in its June decision, which was the mandatory nature of the “Community Covenant.”
Further down, you get the school’s denial that the change was done with ulterior motives.
Bob Kuhn, president of TWU, said the move is an effort to signal to the wider community, including potential students, that it does not discriminate against LGBTQ students or others. He said it was “not about the law school."
Clearly the Post wasn’t buying that, so it spent much of a very well-written piece interviewing people on every possible side of the aisle on this question, plus asking experts in the legal community if the way’s now open for a Christian law school.
One of the more fascinating quotes came from the president of the Catholic Civil Rights League, who described TWU as:
“... a school driven by Christian morality, (that) “fills a niche,” by assuring both students and fee-paying parents that their religious values can infuse their studies.
Dropping the covenant was clearly a compromise, though. He said his organization’s understanding of pluralism has been “put on its ear by the TWU decision … The constitutional matrix of the country has been upset.”
“My sense is they’ve obviously taken stock and perceived that the benefit of a Christian law school outweighs the concerns of a communal shared enterprise,” he said.
The head of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities said the country’s mood is against religious accommodation, so it’s unclear whether the legal community –- even without the problematic covenant -- will allow a TWU law school to exist.
That is the $64,000 question. CBC brought up the same question.
Victoria lawyer Michael Mulligan, who pushed for a special vote to overturn the B.C. Law Society's original decision to accredit TWU, called Tuesday's news "a very positive move."
But he said that if teachers and staff at the proposed law school are still required to sign the covenant, accreditation could still be an issue.
"To the extent that the university would still wish to fire or discipline staff members for being involved in consensual same-sex relationships, they may still have a serious issue about whether it would be in the public interest to grant them approval," Mulligan told CBC News.
The Vancouver Sun’s coverage, with three bylines, was radically different, in that every source it interviewed, with the exception of Bob Kuhn, the president, was anti-TWU.
Instead of talking with the religious community, which might have some feelings of betrayal about the Trinity’s decision, it focused on four spokespersons for gay or legal organizations that oppose the law school, plus one faculty member who took no sides.
The gist of that piece appears in the following:
For Michael Mulligan, a Victoria lawyer who has been active in the fight against the covenant, that means TWU “may have only gotten halfway there” if it continues to seek accreditation.
“The change they made is positive. I’m glad to hear they’re going to reduce the discrimination they engage in, but it may not answer either their problem with getting approval from the minister (of advanced education) and it may also not address that fundamental issue of look, is this in the public interest to grant approval to an institution with policies like this?” Mulligan said.
From south of the border, the only coverage I saw was in Christianity Today. It's interesting that the magazine didn’t ask whether Trinity had compromised its doctrinal principles to get around the Canadian Supreme Court decision, but asked whether the powers-that-be may object to something else about the school.
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?” said Andrew Bennett, director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute. “Or will they find new grounds to object to the creation of Canada’s first Christian law school?”
The most important question: "Did Trinity cave on its traditional teachings on marriage and sex to get another chance at this law school?", wasn’t dealt with by any of these publications. This was the first question that came up in my mind.
I also can’t imagine a religiously based law school in the United States making such a decision and I also can’t imagine any state bar association nixing a religious law school, which is what several Canadian provincial bar associations (or law societies as they’re known up there) did. In other words, this is a high-stakes religious liberty story. Did journalists realize that? At this point in time, does Canadian law protect the rights of secular and religious voluntary associations?
Clearly on this topic, the Vancouver Sun folks -- Trinity’s hometown newspaper -- wouldn’t know objectivity, balance and fairness if they fell over it. I wish they’d asked Douglas Todd, their religion expert, to step in, as Todd could have at least steered them toward local religious groups.
Without a voice explaining that Trinity’s covenant lines up with 2,000 years of Christian doctrine, their coverage is very wanting.