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 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.
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.
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 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 ensure 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 few – answers from the University.
But all legal jargon aside; let's call a spade a spade. This is wrong. It's plain wrong. 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.
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-needed 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.
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?" Pope Francis said. He later 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 of 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?
A version of this essay first appeared in The Wanderer Online magazine, thewandereronline.com