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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Cold Canadian front

Religious Liberty | Threats to religious liberty in Canada show what may be in store for the United States

Issue: "Effective compassion," July 27, 2013

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.

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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.”

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