SO MANY religious-freedom arguments are about the entitlement of sub-cultures, often mildly idiosyncratic ones, to exist. In a way, every religious group is a sub-culture—a community of people who agree to impose on themselves certain rules of behaviour, whether in respect of diet, sex, grooming, attitudes to the body, or how to spend time and money. But how far do the rights of those sub-cultures go? Most of us can think of some “sub-cultural” behaviours which seem benign or harmless—fasting in Lent or Ramadan, for example—and others which horrify most people of a modern sensibility, such as the “circumcision” of baby girls.
But where do you draw the line? In western Canada, a looming controversy over a planned law course at a Christian college promises to be a fascinating test case.
Before attending a single class, students at Trinity Western University (TWU), which offers a broad range of arts and science subjects, must sign what the school calls a community covenant. This is a solemn pledge that they won’t, among other things, lie, cheat and watch porn. They also vow to abstain from premarital sex and specifically any sexual intimacy between people of the same sex. Critics call the covenant anti-gay; the school retorts that it’s asserting its entitlement under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom to practise its beliefs. All this was an academic argument until recently; but it is coming to a head because of the university’s decision to begin a law school, which would accept its first students in 2016.
The school at Trinity Western, which is associated with the Evangelical Free Church of Canada, will break new ground in several ways. It will be the first private law school in Canada and it is the first law school in a Christian university. Canada now has a total of 22 law schools, three of them in British Columbia. Already the decision to train lawyers who disavow homosexuality (at least in their own lives) has created a rift among established law schools and the regulatory bodies in various Canadian provinces which represent lawyers—and could prevent a Trinity graduate from practicing. Ontario’s Law Society voted against approving the school; the barristers of Nova Scotia granted conditional acceptance of the school but only if the covenant was dropped for law students or students were allowed to opt out—which is not currently the case.
Closer to home, British Columbia’s Law Society, which has 13,000 lawyer members, gave an initial approval of the new school last April, indicating that it would allow its graduates to work in the province; but the endorsement so distressed some lawyers that they insisted on a vote among the society’s members. On October 31st, 74% of members voted to withdraw the approval. “What’s difficult about this issue is it’s one charter right—equality—against another charter right—freedom of religion,” says Ryan-Sang Lee of the BC Society. That reversal is not the only problem the university is facing.
Earlier this week, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of a young politician named Trevor Loke who has an elected seat on the city of Vancouver’s park board. Mr Loke describes himself as Christian and gay and his challenge says the province’s advanced education minister was wrong to approve the proposed law school. TWU has asked for and received permission to join the case on the side of the government. “I could not attend TWU because I am gay,” says Mr Loke in the legal challenge. “To me, being gay includes being able to express my sexuality and sexual intimacy with a same-sex partner.”
When the case comes to court on December 1st, Mr Loke will be seeking a ruling that rejects as unconstitutional the whole idea of a law school that requires a fundamentalist Christian covenant. Earl Phillips, the executive director of the TWU law school, says he’s disappointed that reaction to the planned institution has been “emotional” rather than reasoned.
“This is about creating real diversity. We should be able to listen carefully and communicate and have discussions that are respectful but it means also that we should allow the possibility that we will continue to be in disagreement on certain things,” he says. If adhering to a “traditional concept of Christian marriage” makes an institution unfit to train lawyers, then that would “take us a long way down the road to having much less freedom,” adds Mr Phillips.
Cultural warriors on both sides of the Atlantic are already familiar with “sub-cultural” arguments over whether bakers should be compelled to make cakes for gay weddings, and whether hotel owners should be obliged to accommodate same-sex couples. This one promises to be much much bigger.