The community covenant at Trinity Western University lists all the fruits of the Spirit and in 1,906 words details how to live a life “characterized by humility, self-sacrifice, mercy and justice, and mutual submission for the good of others.” As the largest Christian university in Canada, Trinity Western (TWU) requires all employees and 4,200 students to sign the pledge, which includes prohibitions against things like drinking alcohol, gossip, profanity, and “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”
The latter clause took TWU in 2001 to the Supreme Court of Canada, where justices—in an 8-1 decision—ruled the university had the right to form the country’s first Christian teacher’s education program, despite its avowed support for traditional marriage. The decision kept the British Columbia College of Teachers from withholding accreditation and delivered a landmark ruling for religious freedom.
Case closed? Hardly.
Last year, TWU, located less than 10 miles north of Washington state in Langley, British Columbia, submitted an application to open the first Christian law school in Canada. Even with a clear precedent, activists opposed TWU’s plans for a law school and accused it of being “fundamentally inconsistent with Canadian law” based solely on its stance on homosexuality.
“This alone makes it incompetent to deliver legal education in the public interest,” influential attorney Clayton Ruby wrote in a February letter to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada—one of the two governing bodies overseeing the accreditation request. Both the Council of Canadian Law Deans and the Canadian Bar Association also came out in opposition to the proposed law school, and more than 1,000 law students signed a protest letter.
TWU anticipates a decision from the British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education this summer, while a decision from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada may come in the fall. Many religious freedom advocates see TWU’s law school application as a bellwether for religious freedom in Canada. They also see Canada, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, as a bellwether for its neighbor to the south as the United States moves toward legalizing same-sex marriage.
In 2004 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the government had the right to redefine marriage, and months later, Parliament voted to make Canada the third country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. The Civil Marriage Act of 2005 included religious freedom protections, and states: “It is not against the public interest to hold and publicly express diverse views on marriage.”
No charges of actual discrimination have ever been leveled at TWU—a primary reason it won the 2001 case—and the school remains open to all students, in accordance with Canadian law. In February, Bryan Sandberg, an openly gay TWU student, wrote in the school newspaper: “I am only one of numerous gay and lesbian students who have had very positive experiences being welcomed and loved by this amazing community.”
That doesn’t matter to homosexual activists, who insist the school is anti-gay. Opponents haven’t argued TWU’s request for a law school is somehow different from the school’s prior quest to start an education program. What they want is to change Canadian law.
Some have called Trinity Western the Wheaton College of Canada, but it is located in the California of Canada: Less than 10 percent of the population of British Columbia attends weekly church services. “We walk around with a bit of a target on, because the culture is overwhelmingly secular,” said Jonathan Raymond, TWU’s president from 2006 to June of this year.
It might stand to reason that battles for religious freedom would take place in British Columbia, but almost 3,500 miles away, Crandall University found itself fighting a battle in one of the most conservative cities in the country: Moncton, New Brunswick, sits east of the Canadian border with Maine, and about 33 percent of its 70,000 residents attend church services. The city has 22 Baptist churches alone, which provide a steady pipeline of students to the local Baptist university of about 850 students.
In May 2012, homosexual activists launched a well-orchestrated attack based on Crandall’s admonition for employees to “be sexually pure, reserving sexual intimacy for within a traditional marriage between one man and one woman.” River of Pride, a local LGBT group with 32 members, complained that Crandall, a Baptist school, was receiving public funds ($100,000 annually from the City of Moncton), but the university, although open to all students, wouldn’t hire practicing homosexuals.
The charges set off a year-long controversy for the small and, according to Crandall President Bruce Fawcett, unprepared university: “We all know society is secularizing around us at a rapid rate, but the implications of that sometimes don’t occur to you until something like this hits you in the face.”
Crandall announced in November that it would no longer seek funds from the city, but activists then took aim at the policy itself. “If we removed the policy, the next thing could be our statement faith,” Fawcett told me. He said the dispute only died down after the two sides met in early June over dinner, aired their differences, and agreed to disagree. “You may not agree on everything, but you can still arrive at a place of peace and understanding based on mutual respect,” he said.
Fawcett and other evangelical leaders believe a chief problem in Canada—and the United States—is that most Christians don’t know how to speak about biblical sexual ethics to a secular audience, and that only exacerbates existing tensions with the homosexual community.
“Jesus said to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, not vicious as snakes and stupid as pigeons,” said Don Hutchinson, vice president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada—the Canadian equivalent of the National Association of Evangelicals. Hutchinson cited as evidence a recent Supreme Court decision, Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission v. William Whatcott, where the high court ruled a radical protestor (think Westboro Baptist Church) was guilty of hate speech for comparing homosexuals to child molesters in literature he distributed. At the same time, the court also said part of Whatcott’s activities were not hate speech, because they expressed a valid opinion on an issue of public importance without vilifying a group of people.
Kevin Boonstra, a constitutional lawyer who defended Trinity Western in its 2001 court victory, said the Whatcott decision is more about free speech than religious freedom, but it could cause confusion for religious leaders who want to oppose publicly same-sex marriage. “The difference between the permissible communication of religious doctrine, and impermissibly cloaking hate-speech in religious guise, remains problematically ill-defined,” Boonstra wrote after the decision. He told me he doesn’t think Canada has seen exactly where religious freedom will land as a result of the government’s legalization of same-sex marriage.
Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister since 2006, is a Christian and a conservative who has made advancements for religious liberty, such as creating an Office of Religious Freedom in February. Andrew Bennett, tapped to lead the office as its first ambassador of religious freedom, has no domestic mandate, but evangelical leaders are hopeful his appointment will elevate the issue’s importance in his home country.
Bennett, speaking at a June luncheon in New York, said there is no need for him to have a domestic mandate, since religious freedom is written into Canadian law and protected in Parliament and the courts. “But we have to be vigilant that we guard that [fundamental freedom],” he said.
For Conservatives in Parliament, vigilance means repealing hate crimes legislation. The House of Commons voted last year to repeal Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which banned ill-defined “hate speech” via phone or internet communication. The law had allowed Canada’s human rights commission to provide selective enforcement, an arrangement opponents say has led to infringements upon free speech and religious liberty.
The repeal bill gained Senate approval on June 27 and won’t legalize hate speech—but it will strip the human rights commission of its enforcement power. (Truth is no defense in the commission’s secret “courts,” which have been accused of planting evidence in hate speech investigations. In one case, a Christian printer was ordered to pay $5,000 for refusing to produce cards and letterhead for a homosexual group that also promoted pedophilia.)
It’s unclear what impact Harper-led reforms will have in the coming years: Some call them “dramatic” advancements for religious liberty, while others use the word “tweaks” to describe moves that could be overshadowed by future judicial decisions. Two ongoing court battles may be the next front: marriage commissioners who are forced to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies, and Catholic schools that are required to start gay/straight alliance clubs.
The Christian leaders I spoke with know that religious freedom in Canada is still far better than in many countries around the world, but they’re also aware of the slow ebb of infringement upon liberties once enjoyed. Several stressed the need for Christians to affirm what they support, instead of stating what they are against, to help alleviate the tension.
But Benjamin Bull, chief counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom Global, told me that alone won’t stem the tide: “They sound very much like the cautious Jews in Germany in 1935, who said, ‘Let’s just keep our heads down and be good citizens and all of this will blow over.’ I’m not equating the Holocaust to what’s happening, but it’s extraordinarily dangerous not to confront [the growing threat].”
Bull said if current trends continue, religious freedom will be limited to what a person does at home or within a church building. Those attempts are already under way in some parts of the United States, where objections of conscience have led to lawsuits against photographers, bakers, and others who don’t want to be directly involved in same-sex ceremonies.
The onslaught will only continue with the U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman for purposes of federal benefits. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “The only thing that will ‘confine’ the court’s holding is its sense of what it can get away with.”
Bull said bad things for conservatives come to the United States after a trial run in Canada: “Homosexual activism starts in Canada and creeps forward to the United States.” Bull said Christians are “asleep at the switch” and need to have the courage to stand up for what they believe in.
Crandall’s Bruce Fawcett also gave some advice to U.S. believers: get ready. “It will come—and probably when you least expect it,” he said. “The time to begin praying is not in the middle of the storm.” Fawcett suggested Christian organizations and institutions meet to talk about exactly what they believe and how they will express those views, because they will eventually be challenged.
Following Trinity Western’s 2001 victory, six more education programs sprang up at Christian institutions in Canada, yet few faith leaders have shown a willingness to publicly defend the school in its law school controversy. Although TWU may eventually find relief from the courts again, it raises the question: Should it have to go to court to start every new program?
Attorney Kevin Boonstra argues nothing has changed since 2001 when the court ruled that “freedom of religion is not accommodated if the consequence of its exercise is the denial of the right of full participation in society.”
But, according to a group of lawyers and professors who wrote an op-ed for Canada’s National Post, things are different now. “Much has changed—both in the law and in Canadian society,” they wrote. “Time did not stop in 2001.”
Perhaps not, but TWU’s Jonathan Raymond said the university is operating under the conviction that Canada needs a Christian law school, so it is willing to do what it takes to gain approval—and that may mean going back to court: “If it’s not approved, we’re not going to just throw in the towel.”