On June 15, 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) ruling regarding a Christian law school sparked discussion around the world about religious freedom in Canada. The case involved Trinity Western University’s (TWU) proposed law school in Langley, B.C.
TWU began the process of opening a Christian law school in 2012 but faced opposition from the law societies of British Columbia and Ontario. The law societies refused accreditation to graduates of the proposed law school because all students must sign a mandatory community covenant that includes a commitment to abstain from sexual relations outside of the context of marriage between a man and woman.
After dealing with continued opposition, TWU appealed to the SCC, presenting their case in November 2017.
In a complex and detailed ruling, the Court upheld the decisions of the two law societies. While this decision places limits on TWU’s rights of religious freedom, the SCC ruled in favor of a proportionate balance to protect public interests, particularly those of the LGBTQ communities who could not gain equal access to legal education in Canada.
“Thinking about TWU, this has been a dream they have been building toward for many, many years. The disappointment, given all the work that was put into it—it’s just devastating for Trinity Western,” said Bruce Clemenger, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and an intervenor on this case. The Christian Reformed Church is a member of the EFC.
The EFC held a webinar on June 27 to discuss the TWU ruling. Clemenger was joined by legal co-counsel Albertos Polizogopoulos and Justin Cooper, executive director of Christian Higher Education Canada. Cooper also served as president of Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont., for 15 years. He is a member of First CRC in Hamilton, Ont.
The webinar addressed the questions circulating through mainstream media reflecting the fears and tensions surrounding this ruling; questions like: What does this mean for religious freedom in Canada? What are the implications moving forward? What does this mean for other institutions that have covenants or statements of faith?
“Contrary to [what] some of the writings have been saying, this is not the end of religious freedom in Canada. This is a very specific and focused decision,” Polizogopoulos stated. “Because the court relied on the ‘reasonableness’ of this case, this is a not a binding precedent. It is a decision that is very specific to this set of facts.”
Clemenger agreed. He said that judicial reviews on Canada Summer Jobs attestation may be more concerning and telling of implications for faith-based organizations. That program provides government funding to organizations that create summer jobs for students. Many churches have in the past received grants to help run social programs and day camps for children. In 2018, Canada’s Liberal government added a requirement that applicants for the funds attest support for reproductive rights including access to abortion. (See also “Advocates for Canadian Charities Advise on Student Grant.”) The webinar also discussed how Christians should respond to these cases.
“The worst thing is to be striking back with unbalanced arguments. The best thing the Christian community could be doing is steadfast prayer,” said Cooper. “This is a spiritual battle, and the Bible teaches us that our strongest weapon is prayer. Engage the public square and use the freedom we have in this land.”
Along with this webinar, other key organizations continue to discuss what this means for faith organizations that seek accreditation from governing bodies. Some of them took part in a summit held in Ottawa following the ruling.
Cardus, a faith-based think tank with offices in Hamilton and Ottawa, established its Cardus Religious Freedom Institute this past May to research and educate about religious freedoms. Cardus is actively engaged with the TWU ruling.
“At Cardus, as a think tank, we are trying to understand the implications of the Trinity Western [decision] and are in active discussions with other organizations about what it means. Cardus is so passionate about researching and profiling how communities of faith produce a tremendous amount of good,” said Michael Van Pelt, executive director of Cardus and a member of First CRC in Hamilton. “As some Canadians are less involved in religious exercises and distanced from their own religious heritage, it becomes easy to overlook the importance of the freedom of religion in our charter,” observed Van Pelt. “I wonder [if] when you’ve lived with religious freedom for such a long time, it becomes so embedded that it’s easy to take it for granted.”
Robert Joustra is associate professor of politics and international studies and director of the Centre for Christian Scholarship at Redeemer University College and editor of Public Justice Review for the Center for Public Justice in Washington, D.C. “Ultimately, the decision, coupled together with challenges like Canada Summer Jobs, signal that public morality is thickening. You could say the state is making its own community covenant, and wherever it touches other religions in public spaces, it will prevail. For those who do not share the state’s community covenant on these issues, the TWU decision may signal for them a wake-up,” he explained.
The message from key leaders is clear. Educate. Pray. Engage. It will take years and even decades to see the full implications of this moment in legal history and to answer the questions of what this truly means for Christian higher education.
TWU is now taking time to review the SCC decision and deliberate over next steps.
“The ruling has made those questions possible. The door has been opened,” said Sonya Grypma, dean of the School of Nursing at TWU and a member of Willoughby CRC in Langley, BC. “When we are looking at it externally it’s a polarizing issue—win versus lose—but we need to ask what God is doing in this and have faith in God’s sovereignty. We don’t know what the outcome will be but trust that God’s got this.”