Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
After a five-year process, by a vote of 7-2 the Supreme Court of Canada does not approve granting Trinity Western University’s request to begin a law school. The majority concludes it is “proportionate and reasonable” to affirm the rights of LGBT students over TWU’s religious convictions.
On June 15, in a vote of 7-2, the Supreme Court of Canada sided against Trinity Western University, a school associated with the Evangelical Free Church of Canada, and a sister to the EFCA and Trinity International University, that prohibits them from beginning a law school. The court ruled that “because TWU upheld a traditional Christian view of marriage its law school graduates may be barred from legal practice.” Furthermore, as part of the Court’s decision they concluded it is “proportionate and reasonable” to affirm the rights of LGBT students over TWU’s religious convictions.
In similar manner to many other Christian institutions in Canada and the U.S., TWU abides by a “community covenant,” a covenant grounded in the Bible that guides the moral behavior of its faculty, staff, and students. Part of the covenant states that members of the community must “voluntarily abstain from the following actions . . . [including] sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” TWU is disappointed their commitment to biblical teaching on morality and marriage is not deemed acceptable in Canada.
President Bob Kuhn, writes: “In a very long complex ruling, with four sets of reasons, eight of nine judges agree that Trinity Western University’s religious freedom is violated but the majority still uphold the law societies’ decision not to approve the law school.” In spite of the disappointment with the ruling, Kuhn says “we will continue to pursue our unique mission as a faith-based university to develop leaders who will serve our country and the rest of the world.” So even in the midst of this discouragement, they continue to serve the Lord, students, their country, and the rest of the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Though they are “struck down,” they are not destroyed. The gospel continues to motivate and compel them and gives them hope.
The majority believed this covenant was not a matter of simple disagreement with the school’s required beliefs. Rather, they concluded that “being required by someone else’s religious beliefs to behave contrary to one’s sexual identity is degrading and disrespectful. Being required to do so offends the public perception that freedom of religion includes freedom from religion.” This would discourage or dissuade LGBT students from attending TWU’s law school, and any who would attend would likely be at risk of “significant harm.”
Even though the majority on the court concluded TWU’s requirement to abide by the biblical teaching on morality and ethics reduced the “diversity” of the legal profession, the two dissenting justices concluded differently. They believe the Law Society of Upper Canada, which accredits Ontario’s law schools, acted beyond its mandate as they attempted to maintain a “diverse” group of lawyers. “The decision not to accredit TWU’s proposed law school,” they wrote, “is a profound interference with TWU community’s freedom of religion. It interferes with that community’s expression of religious belief through the practice of creating and adhering to a Biblically grounded covenant.”
The majority recognized and affirmed the decision conflicted with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom. But, they believed, the suppression of religious liberty “is of minor significance” when weighed against the benefit to the public of guaranteeing “equal access to and diversity in the legal profession.”
Earl Phillips, executive director of TWU’s proposed law school, writes, “Without question, the Trinity Western community is disappointed by this ruling. However, all Canadians should be troubled by today’s decision that sets a precedent for how the courts will interpret and apply Charter rights and equality rights going forward.”
This decision has eviscerated religious freedom protections. Andrew Bennett, director of the religious freedom institute at the Christian based think-tank Cardus, concludes “the Supreme Court of Canada has consigned the fundamental right to freedom of conscience and religion to second class status with its decision on Trinity Western University. This upholds a narrow understanding of diversity in which people of faith are relegated to the private sphere. Canadians of all faiths will have less latitude to publicly dissent from majority opinions on social issues that clash with their beliefs. Now more than ever we need a robust and clear defence of freedom of conscience and religion and public faith.”
This decision regarding religious freedom affects Canada directly and explicitly. It may also affect the U.S. because this decision regarding religious freedom may be an indicator of future trends.
TWU is on mission with and for Christ. That means that although they have been struck down, they are not destroyed. It is vital for all of us to remember Paul’s words:
we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies (2 Cor. 4:7-10).
As a Free Church family, we pray for TWU regarding this decision, that sisters and brothers in Christ and in churches will continue to manifest the surpassing power of their lives and mission belong to God and not to us. May we also pray for the important matter of religious freedom, both in Canada and in the U.S.