Michael Coren is the author of The Future of Catholicism, Why Catholics Are Right and Epiphany: A Christian’s Change of Heart and Mind Over Same-Sex Marriage
On Friday the Supreme Court of Canada delivered a ruling that many conservative Christians are condemning as an attack on religious freedom and LGBTQ groups are applauding as a robust defence of civil rights and social equality. In a 7-2 decision, the justices concluded that the law societies of Ontario and British Columbia have the right to deny accreditation to graduates from the proposed law school of Trinity Western University (TWU), an evangelical college in Langley, B.C. The court judged that it was “proportionate and reasonable” to limit religious rights in such a case – to guarantee the rights of gay students.
The case has its origins in TWU’s plans to train law students, but at a university where a “Community Covenant” is in place. That covenant outlines some often entirely laudable, if somewhat, intrusive ways of life for students, but then spends a startling degree of time and space discussing sex and sexuality. It’s euphemistic in its language, but while not explicitly referring to homosexuality, the references are inescapable. Students must “observe modesty, purity and appropriate intimacy in all relationships, reserve sexual expressions of intimacy for marriage, and within marriage take every reasonable step to resolve conflict and avoid divorce.” They have to sign their names to the statement that condemns, “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” Finally, the covenant insists that, “According to the Bible, sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman, and within that marriage bond it is God’s intention that it be enjoyed as a means for marital intimacy and procreation.”
Law Societies in Ontario, Nova Scotia and B.C. all refused to accredit the Trinity program, but in Nova Scotia and B.C. the courts supported the university. Ontario disagreed, describing the covenant as, “deeply discriminatory to the LGBT community.” Thus, the appeal to the Supreme Court and Friday’s long-awaited decision.
The case has been reduced by TWU’s supporters as being one of freedom of religion, but that obscures some of the realities of what this is all about. Canadians have every right to disagree with – and even campaign against – equal marriage and indeed there are still numerous churches that hold to this teaching and enjoy political and financial protection. The TWU dispute, however, is more nuanced than that.
The college can enforce their covenant and they can also teach law. What they cannot due is demand that their graduates are accredited by various provincial bar associations. This, of course, would mean that they could not work as lawyers. Not because they are conservative Christians, not because they oppose same-sex marriage, not for any of their religious beliefs. The reason is that the college that trained them – in spite of how they may try to obfuscate – refuses to accept students in what are legally recognized same-sex marriages or open gay relationships.
The legal issues aside, there is reason to question the allegedly religious underpinning of all this. Jesus never actually speaks of homosexuality, which was certainly well known and often discussed in 1st century Palestine. He is revolutionary in his concept of acceptance and love, and when he is presented with sexual “sin” – the story of the woman caught in adultery – his disdain is for the accusing hypocrites rather than the object of their anger.
He does, however, condemn divorce more than once, partly because it left women destitute and powerless. Yet, conservative Christian colleges that enforce morality clauses almost always take a firmer stand against potential students who may be LGBTQ than those who are divorced. In the case of TWU, it speaks of merely “reasonable” steps to avoid divorce. In other words, if you’re divorced we’ll find a way to accommodate you, but if your marriage is not between a man and a woman and intended for procreation, you’re not welcome on the ark.
So, the consistency of the Christian argument is deeply flawed and so are the precedents. We ought to remember that some, though certainly not all Christians, used scripture to justify and defend slavery, to oppose female equality and to be on the wrong side of history on multiple occasions. I say this as a committed Christian and with a heavy heart.
The reality is that those people who wanted to qualify as lawyers at TWU will find alternative arrangements and that there will still be lawyers who oppose LGBTQ equality. But a reminder has been sent that harmful discrimination is unacceptable, even if tenuously framed in theological language. And that’s rather godly.