TRAIL, B.C. -- When equality and religious rights butt heads, as in the controversy over the proposed law school at Trinity Western University, Canadians need thoughtful analysis and informed discussion, not knee-jerk reactions. The recent decision of the Law Society of B.C. to approve the proposed TWU's Faculty of Law shows a principled approach to a thorny problem.
There is considerable opposition to the proposed law school at the privately funded Christian university, also approved by the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, and various provincial and territorial law societies. A lawsuit has been filed against the B.C. government for approving the school and a B.C. lawyer has circulated a petition to members of the B.C. bar to force the Law Society to reconsider its decision.
At issue is a clause in TWU's Community Covenant Agreement that reads, "Further, according to the Bible, sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman..."
The Community Covenant Agreement at TWU is a roadmap for personal and community conduct. It is based on the institution's acceptance, as expressed in the agreement, that the Bible is "the divinely inspired, authoritative guide for personal and community life."
All TWU faculty, staff and students agree to abide by the covenant, and to model themselves after biblical virtues, as interpreted according to the university's evangelical Protestant tradition.
The traditional view of marriage and sexuality expressed in the Community Covenant is a sincerely held religious belief and the university requires a level of sexual restraint from all its members. Nevertheless, the implications of the clause discriminate against the enrolment of LGBT persons, and have called into question the university's ability to properly train individuals who, as lawyers, must swear an oath to uphold the rights and freedoms of all people.
Because of this clause, the proposed Faculty of Law at TWU raises complex questions about religious freedom, freedom of association and equality.
There are no easy answers when the rights of two disparate groups conflict. The benchers of the Law Society waded through approximately 2,000 pages of material before making a decision. In a rigorous examination of issues and opinions, the Law Society considered legal advice from a number of advisers, federation reports and close to 300 public submissions, which were nearly evenly divided for and against TWU.
Because rights and freedoms are not absolute, it is sometimes necessary to balance them against each other. In the balancing act, there are no clear winners, as the Law Society debate illustrates: TWU did not come out smelling like a rose even though the benchers voted in its favour.
Whether we agree or disagree with the decision, the process of respectful and informed debate can help us more comprehensively grasp nuanced issues, and lead us to a more compassionate understanding of those whose beliefs, lifestyles and identities differ from our own.
The controversy is an example of the tension that exists in Canadian society between religious rights and equality rights. This tension is not going to go away. No matter on which side of the fence we find ourselves, we need to work at respecting the rights of others and honouring the spirit of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We cannot "live and let live" only when the manner of living falls into line with our worldview. To do so runs the risk of swapping one form of intolerance for another.
Troy Media columnist Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.