One of the reasons Canada has our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is to protect minority rights from the changing opinions of the majority. The recent reversal by the Law Society of B.C., which now refuses to accredit graduates of Trinity Western University’s (TWU) proposed law school, is a prime example of what the Charter is intended to prevent.
The B.C. Law Society’s governing council had approved the proposed law school based on its review of the Charter, previous court decisions and respect for religious freedom. Last week in a referendum, a majority of lawyers in B.C. voted to withdraw accreditation and the Law Society reversed its decision based on a vote – the lawyers voted on religious freedom and religious freedom lost. The desire to reject a code of conduct that was not their preference, it seems, outweighed the protection offered by the law.
At the heart of the issue is TWU’s community covenant which students and staff sign. Among other things, it prohibits sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage. The Supreme Court of Canada had previously ruled that the covenant should not hinder the recognition of TWU’s teacher’s college. The covenant is not contrary to human rights law in B.C.
The issue is not whether the education will meet provincial standards; TWU has a proven record of academic excellence. There is no evidence that the covenant results in a substandard learning environment. In fact, quite the opposite is true. According to TWU, 100 of its graduates have gone on to become lawyers. Graduates from TWU’s teachers college have given no evidence of being unable to fulfil the obligations of their profession.
Rather, the issue is that TWU is a Christian community that seeks to maintain a Christian code of conduct among its members. Some find the standards offensive and presume that holding to a Christian code of conduct should disqualify TWU from having a law school, or individuals graduating from the proposed law school from practising law.
The issue is about beliefs, not abilities. It is the faith orientation, not the academic qualifications, that is being challenged. It is the ability of a Christian community to define its standards and to practise its faith that is being undermined.
Evangelicals are significant contributors to the public good. In a truly pluralist society there will be disagreement about many matters, including matters of sexual ethics. But in a free and democratic society these differences make up the mosaic of Canada. It is no accident that religious freedom is the first freedom identified in the Charter. It is the bellwether for all other freedoms.
It is not against the public interest to hold and publicly express diverse views on marriage – Parliament declared this when marriage was redefined. And the Supreme Court has said a free society can accommodate a wide variety of beliefs, pursuits, customs and codes of conduct.
Not all will agree, but that is the essence of a free society. To deny a person or community a benefit of law or policy, or to impose an obligation or sanction, strictly because of their religious beliefs is discriminatory and regressive. Of all people, the members of the law society should understand this.