Lost Opportunities: The Ironies of Trinity Western’s Law School Affair | By Stéphane Erickson

I write this as a graduate from the University of Alberta, a place where I learned to grow, to develop my identity, to be proud of who I am. I write this as a current law student at the University of Ottawa, a school where I have never felt so accepted, so welcomed, so human. I write this as a 23 year-old homosexual. I write this as a proud Canadian, so grateful to live in a country where our legal institutions are strong and well respected. I write this as a Christian, as a Roman Catholic, a faith passed on to me by my parents, which I have come to reconcile with my sexual orientation, which still holds a dear place in my heart.

Canada will soon be home to its 23rd law school. Amidst overwhelming concern voiced by the Association of Canadian Law Deans, OUTlaw, politicians, respected lawyers and academics, hundreds of law students across Canada and other human rights groups, Trinity Western University has received the green light approval from the province to establish Canada’s first Christian-run law school. Remarkably, it will also be Canada’s first law school to academically sanction students not respecting the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.

While it may come as no surprise that this policy has come under much scrutiny, I believe Trinity Western has voiced valid and important points. Firstly and above all, University officials have vouched that the school would teach Canadian law, paying special attention to religious rights. The very backbone on which the school is leaning on to enforce its “heterosexual sanctity of marriage policy” (if it can be called that) is after all based on what they believe to be religious freedom. It is no secret that schools across Canada focus on different aspects of the law. The University of Toronto focuses on corporate business law. The University of Ottawa is known for its research in Charter rights and social justice. The Université de Moncton excels in constitutional French language rights. The University of Alberta in natural resource related law. And the list goes on. Having a university focusing on religious freedoms could indeed be an asset to Canadian legal academia and doctrine.

Politically, great emphasis has been put on religious freedoms under the Harper government. Many have hailed Canada’s first Office of Religious Freedoms as a great accomplishment and step forward in the furtherance of human rights both domestically and abroad. It is no secret that religious freedoms are under grave attack in many parts of the world. Religious minorities are persecuted and deprived of their dignity, their humanity, their natural rights, with which all humans are born and entitled to. From the persecution of the Christians before Constantine, to the barbarity against Islam under Queen Isabel of Spain in the 15th Century, to the Holocaust of the Jews, history has shown that religious minorities face overwhelming devastation and great vulnerability in many societies.

In fact, Canada itself would have perished long ago if religious freedoms had not been secured for religious minorities. At the birth of the Confederation, it was indeed the agreement that Québec would be allowed to keep its faith, and traditions gifted from France and Rome. What’s more, minority rights to education were to be granted to minority religious groups – not minority language groups. That is to say that Catholic and Protestant minorities were to enjoy constitutional protections in access to education. The reminiscence of Canada’s constitutional victory for minority religious rights to education continues today in some provinces, such as Alberta and Ontario. To have a Canadian faculty of law specializing in the study of religious rights would not only serve to tackle severe issues happening abroad, but would also be a testament to the very foundations, the very concessions, on which Canada was allowed to grow. To say otherwise is wrong and is ignorant of our country’s values and principles. The Supreme Court in the Renvoi relatif à la sécession du Québec or, in English, in the Secession of Québec Reference, recognized the importance of minority religious rights historically accorded to Catholics and Protestants, underlining the principle as crucial to our constitutional order.

Today, religious rights have certainly not lost their importance. To the contrary, in a multicultural and diverse country, the encounter between religion, the law and society is rightfully and forcibly inevitable. The Shafia case, the newfound sensitivity at Christmas and at other Christian holidays, the Charter of Values in Québec, the crucifix in Québec’s National Assembly, the R v NS case, the former convocation speech of the University of Alberta’s President – these are all examples that warrant the attribution of greater research, attention and resources to the study of religion and the law.

Let us not forget that the obsession with religion and pushing one’s religious beliefs on others is just as equally dangerous as imposing the false and untrue idea that the whole of society must be secular. While the State may be secular or neutral in its administration, society is not. For all these reasons, the study of the law at Trinity Western University could indeed be seen as a great advancement for Canada. Unfortunately, Trinity Western University has reminded us why the study of religious rights and freedoms are so crucially important, but for very, very different reasons.

How hurtful, how absolutely senseless – the thought of having a Canadian law school accessible to all, to the exclusion of those who do not, or cannot, adhere to heterosexual marriage. The obvious questions therefore follow: How is a law school, which does not recognize the legitimacy of civil unions, same-sex marriage, and non-traditional family structures, going to ensure an accurate and sincere legal education? How is the Charter going to be taught with respect to women’s rights, LGBT rights, and other issues pertaining to sections 15 and 7? Moreover, and maybe most importantly, how is the school going to insure that students feel safe in an environment morally bound by religious doctrine and skewed interpretations of sacred texts? All these questions have been asked, with no – or very little – answers from the University.

But all legal jargon aside; let’s call a spade a spade. This is wrong. It’s plain wrong. It doesn’t matter what way you try to skin the cat. Denying access to education – above all legal education – based on one’s sexual orientation or lifestyle choices is wrong. Whether it’s a private institution or a public institution, it remains wrong. It’s wrong because it is hateful. It conveys the message that religion can indeed be used as shield, as a cloak, to discriminate, to judge and to perpetuate vile and harmful ideas – be it against women, ethnicities, sexual minorities, or other contributors to society that have been historically and systematically forced to silence, to shame, to the periphery. Don’t get me wrong. When rooted in love, in compassion, in forgiveness and charity, religion can be a tool for great good and progress. But when cultivated from the seeds of harsh sentencing, absoluteness, fear and pride, religion – like all other human-run sects of society – has the potential to undo good and progress, often at the expense of the vulnerable, the forgotten, the castaways.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the current situation is that so many opportunities have been lost. What could have been an opportunity for greater dialogue between religious rights and other human rights has now been tarnished and blocked by Trinity Western. Instead of welcoming a rich and much-need exchange of ideas on the encounter between religion and the law, Trinity Western’s officials have done quite the opposite. To say that students who have issues with the school’s policy should apply elsewhere does not amount to furthering the understanding of religion and its purpose; to the contrary, it shuts doors and enables the idea that religion is only available to those who adhere to what the upper echelons of its organized hierarchy opine.

Trinity Western has affirmed that they, as a faith-based educational institution, should have the right to “fully participate in society.” And so they should. The difficulty, however, is that their message is one of double standard and hypocrisy – “do as I say” rather than “do I as I do.” Said otherwise, Trinity Western’s officials would have the Canadian legal community welcome them and allow them to “fully participate in society,” while they themselves would not allow all walks of life – all members of society – to fully participate in their law school. Trinity Western’s gross attitude and total misuse of “religious freedoms” takes all the good in religion and poisons it with the most twisted and ignorant forms of hidden discrimination and fear.

To quote Time Magazine’s Person of Year, a quote that reverberated throughout the world: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” The Pope then wrote, “We are called to show that the Church is the home of all. Are we capable of communicating the image of such a Church?” Although Trinity Western is not a Roman Catholic institution, it could try to mirror what the leader of over one billion Christians has said.

I therefore ask this to Canada’s soon-to-be law school: If a person is gay and loves another person of the same sex, and seeks to further his or her understanding of the law, notably in the areas of religious freedoms, and has good will, on which authority do you stand to judge him or her? Is Trinity Western really open to all? And if so, how can you communicate such an image of true openness and acceptance?

After all, both openness and acceptance are fundamental to all Canadian law schools. It seems to me that they should be – or, rather, that they were – fundamental to all Christian-run institutions as well.

Photo: Tulane on flickr

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  • Erika Chan

    Beautifully written!

  • Veronica Abbass

    There is another irony here. You say you are “a Christian, a Roman Catholic. . . a faith which still holds a dear place in [your] heart.” This makes as much sense as Trinity Western trying to be a law school. Every person who remains loyal to the RCC is helping to perpetuate the harm the RCC does.

    • Stéphane Erickson

      If you are born in Canada, and are Canadian, and disagree with your country’s leadership, does that make you any less Canadian? If you are born in a religion, and disagree with its leadership, does that make you a lesser member of your religion? Important change often stems from within, although that requires sacrifice and courage – to be judged by your own kin, by your colleagues, by your peers, by your loved ones.

      • Veronica Abbass

        “If you are born in Canada, and are Canadian, and disagree with your country’s leadership, does that make you any less Canadian?”

        No, it doesn’t, but at least we can vote for change through a democratic process.

        The RCC is not a democratic institution. It is naive to believe that it is possible to change to the Catholic Church from within.