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The New Canadian Legal Order: Discriminating against Christians to End Discrimination

By: Louis Groarke - May 1, 2014, 10:30 am

EspañolMost prominent Canadian universities are decidedly secular places.

Trinity Western University in Vancouver, British Columbia, is unusual because, as the name indicates, it takes its religious affiliation seriously.

The college is designed to serve a particular religious community: dedicated Evangelical Christian students who want to enjoy a university education with like-minded colleagues inside an environment that respects and upholds their religious beliefs.

The university is mostly an undergraduate institution (42 undergraduate programs and 16 graduate programs). It is relatively small, serving about 4000 students, with an average class size around 20-25 students. It has a wide diversity of programs and has gained impressively high marks in professional and public surveys. Unlike most Canadian universities, it does not receive public funding for its operations, relying on private donations, largely from church members and alumni.

As various media sources have reported, students that decide to attend the Trinity Western are obliged to sign a community code of conduct. The rather lengthy statement stipulates that students shall “cultivate Christian virtues, such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, compassion, humility, forgiveness, peace-making, mercy and justice.” Students must promise to “live exemplary lives characterized by honesty, civility, truthfulness, generosity and integrity.” They must undertake to “communicate in ways that build others up,” to “treat all persons with respect and dignity,” to “be responsible citizens both locally and globally,” and to “submit to the laws” of Canada.

That a private Christian university should expect students to adhere to its religious and moral values would hardly seem to be a momentous development, except that the university has plans to establish a new law school beginning in 2016. This will mean — heaven forbid! — that committed Evangelical Christians might actually receive their degrees from a Christian university and be licensed to practice law in all Canadian provinces.

Quick to see the danger, the Law Society of Upper Canada (Ontario) recently voted 28 to 21 against the accreditation of the university’s proposed new law program. And just the other day, the Nova Scotia bar society, ready to join in the battle against regressive social attitudes, voted to withhold accreditation of Trinity Western graduates unless the college agrees to drop the requirement that its students sign its community pledge to uphold Christian values.

On the face of it, this pre-emptive move to bar Evangelical Christian lawyers from plying their trade in Ontario and Nova Scotia contradicts the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter guarantees such “fundamental freedoms” as the “freedom of conscience and religion”; the “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression”; and the “freedom of association.” But the Canadian courts will decide that issue in due time, as challenges to the law societies’ decisions are to be expected.

What is even more disturbing, however, is the mentality behind this kind of aggressive legal and professional initiative.

The Trinity Western community code prohibits all sorts of things like stealing, vandalism, illegal drugs, pornography, and even the use of alcohol and tobacco on campus. Students are admonished to refrain from anything that is “degrading, dehumanizing, exploitive, hateful, or gratuitously violent,” and fromgossip, slander, vulgar/obscene language, prejudice, harassment or any form of verbal or physical intimidation.”

But none of this is what the fuss is really about. It is the university’s affirmation, in its community code, of the traditional biblical belief that “sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman.” Our learned colleagues in the law societies are outraged that Evangelical Christians would have the temerity to publically endorse the religious belief that gay promiscuity and gay marriage is wrong!

Trinity Western University is not, to all appearances, a hub of anti-gay sentiment. It publicly declares on its web pages: “Anyone is welcome to attend Trinity Western University, regardless of their sexual orientation or religious beliefs. Many gay students have attended — and graduated — from our university, as have students from many different faiths and ethnicities.”

In any case, graduates from the eventual law school at Trinity Western could not change Canadian laws on same sex marriage. In their professional practice, these lawyers would have to obey the same non-discrimination laws and policies when it comes to sexual orientation as everyone else in the legal profession.

What is going on here is a deliberate attempt — on the part of the law profession — to discriminate against a substantially large group: openly conservative Christians. This is a matter of practicing discrimination in order to prohibit discrimination.

It does not matter if one is a conservative Christian or not. It does not matter if one is gay or straight. It does not matter if one approves or disapproves of a gay lifestyle or gay sexuality. This aggressive movement to disenfranchise — in advance — an entire group of sincere religious believers from legitimate employment should be disturbing news to anyone who believes in freedom.

Should people who don’t believe in gay marriage be required to wear a yellow star? Should they be prohibited from holding public office? Should they only be allowed into professions where they cannot influence public opinion?

Since when should lawyers in far-off Ontario or Nova Scotia be able to dictate to a private Christian university the precise content of their own community code?

lady-justice-1
Lady Justice. Source: I Heart Manila.

By all means, don’t go to Trinity Western University if you don’t subscribe to traditional Christian values. If you think Christianity is fundamentally wrong, by all means, argue vigorously against it in print. But don’t discriminate against those you disagree with because you are against discrimination.

As one gets older, one notices that many of those who rely on familiar platitudes in favor of tolerance, diversity, and pluralism, only adhere to those values when it applies to their own group, to their own political agenda, to their own moral persuasion.

In traditional representations, Lady Justice is blindfolded, with a sword, holding up the scales of justice. She is blindfolded so she can’t play favorites. The law is supposed to protect everyone from discrimination. Evangelical Christians are citizens of Canada as well. They have the same right to demand equal opportunity in the workplace as other groups.

Louis Groarke Louis Groarke

Louis Groarke is a professor of philosophy at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. He is the author of several books, including, Moral Reasoning: Rediscovering the Ethical Tradition and The Good Rebel: Understanding Freedom and Morality. Contact him via his personal website.