As an evangelical institution, Trinity Western University (TWU) requires all students and staff to sign a community covenant. Said covenant, though arguably well-intentioned to promote traditional Christian values, has been ruled to interfere with LGBTQ rights. Most recently, the Divisional Court of Ontario denied TWU’s application for judicial review of its latest rejection for law school accreditation.
This decision received criticism from a recent opinion piece in The Varsity, which argued for TWU’s religious freedom. Yet, the fact that TWU is a religious university does not grant them leave to marginalize the LGBTQ community. TWU’s law school should not be accredited — at least, not yet.
The offending portions of the covenant include the fact that members must abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman”, and (under the subsection “Healthy Sexuality”), acknowledge that “according to the Bible, sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman.” These statements directly contradict the spirit of three levels of Canadian legislation on LGBTQ equality.
Firstly, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is constitutional law that protects the rights of anyone on Canadian soil. S.15(1) of the charter forbids discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation.
Although religious freedom is also protected under S.2(a), using this to justify discrimination is a different story. For this reason, S.1 can limit rights under certain circumstances, which is why, for example, S.2(b) on freedom of expression is constrained by S.319 of the Criminal Code on hate speech.
Admittedly, TWU is a private university, and the charter only governs interactions within the public sphere. However, given its immense significance as a symbol of rights and equity, disregarding what the Charter stands for is no small transgression, even on the part of a private institution.
This is not to mention that same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada in 2005. It is thus mildly ironic that, in 2015, a law school refuses to acknowledge a practice that has been lawful for 10 years.
Finally, all provinces and territories have human rights legislation condemning the discrimination of individuals based on sexual orientation. This applies to education as well as employment (students as well as staff).
Considering this, TWU’s covenant outright rejects the principles that have guided the legal progress of the LGBTQ community in Canada. It is not “moral conformity” to require an institution to be mindful of LGBTQ interests in the society we live in, it is an obligation that is moral as well as legal.
Beyond theoretical principles of equity, LGBTQ isolation at TWU continues in practice.
The Divisional Court of Ontario argued that the covenant deters LGBTQ students from attending TWU, and that signing the covenant would mean disavowing “their very identity.”
Although some have condemned this statement, saying it plays to the stereotype of “unwholesome” pre-marital LGBTQ sex practices, the statement can actually be interpreted in a more logical way.
Simply put, the court is right — it is degrading to force an LGBTQ person to sign a contract that stresses the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. By doing this, LGBTQ individuals would be yielding to the implication that only heterosexuality is acceptable.
Accordingly, LGBTQ students may not always feel at home at TWU. Student Bryan Sandberg — despite his love for the institution — hid his sexuality for two months after his arrival on campus. When interviewed, he knew only two TWU students out of a population of 4,000 who were openly gay.
Under different circumstances, former student Jill Bishop carried out a secret same-sex relationship during her time at TWU. Looking back, she recalls that some professors condemned homosexuality in their lectures, and that she faced a real risk of expulsion if her relationship were to be discovered.
Instead of pushing heteronormativity, TWU ought to make LGBTQ rights a priority. The law is an instrument of social justice and equity; we cannot legitimize a law school that excludes an already marginalized group.
In fact, the Canadian Bar Association argued that it is not enough for TWU to meet the competency requirements for accreditation (i.e. legal skills). Whether the university complies with Canadian law and the broader role of law itself must also be considered.
Universities have a duty to advocate for legal education that promotes equity and respect: only in this way will social justice continue to advance. Although TWU is a private institution, law societies — which are publicly funded -— should hesitate to provide accreditation if doing so involves condoning discriminatory policy.
TWU can have its law school — but it won’t be official until it changes its policies. In the meantime, the doors to accreditation remain firmly shut.
Teodora Pasca is a second-year student at Innis College studying criminology and ethics, society and law.