Secularism and Diversity: Lessons from Canada

The implications of the Canadian Supreme Court's refusal to accredit the Trinity Western University law program.

So, what can be done to help law school students as they prepare to serve in this vital public sphere? Putting money and organization into nurturing and counseling law students may offer influence beyond what a single law school might provide. The Christian Legal Fellowship of Canada has a student initiative for law students, giving them opportunities to associate with and learn from others in law, providing intellectual undergirding and spiritual affirming as they go through their training.

 

Trinity Western University, a Canadian liberal arts university, planned to open a law school as part of its vision to prepare Christians to serve in public and civic life. It wasn’t long before their plan triggered the ire of provincial law societies.

In the end, this case ended up before the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled that provincial law societies could refuse to admit TWU law grads from practicing law. Their ruling was based on their objection to the university’s community covenant: It requires students to agree to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and woman.”

Why Does This Matter?

Let me share a few reasons I believe this is important for Christians both in Canada and beyond.

First, it shows how a country’s top court can render a verdict in favor of human rights but biased against religious freedom. When the two ideas butted heads, religious freedom was the loser.

Second, it makes short shrift of the model that within a diverse society a plurality of ideas and beliefs can exist together. This is a huge loss. And when Canada, known for its democracy and public fairness, takes this road, we lose an important example of how pluralism functions.

In today’s cultural, religious, and ethnic stew, to respect and get along with each other is as basic a formula as I can imagine. Justices opposing the majority noted,

The state and state actors [and in this case, provincial law societies] – not private institutions like TWU – are constitutionally bound to accommodate difference in order to foster pluralism in public life. . . . Canadians are permitted to hold different sets of values.

Third, it keeps faith from being public. I hear the justices saying something like, “Live out your faith within your churches, institutions, and private communities, but if you try to bring it into civic life, if we don’t see your beliefs as being inclusive with our values, we will prevent your faith from influencing our public spheres.”

Fourth, it assumes that Christian standards and beliefs for an institution are not essential to its identity, self-definition, or existence, but a preference.

Fifth, the decision is based on what the justices determined are “values,” neither defined nor included in the Charter: Here they become what the court deems is implied. Two judges, in a rather scathing analysis of the majority opinion, noted that such values are “. . . entirely the product of the idiosyncrasies of the judicial mind that pronounces them to be so.” What is unsettling is that by appealing to “Charter values,” the justices dip into their collective views and draw on what are unmeasurable, indefinable, and elastic, reflecting their own cultural values rather than protecting minorities.

Canadian universities that provide training for other kinds of professional vocations may now be under scrutiny if they don’t also adhere to what the court considers “values.”For those outside of Canada, Paul Marshall, professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University in Texas, notes that this ruling may present a challenge for Americans who want to practice law in Canada. Grads from socially conservative universities such as Baylor and Brigham Young may run into a headwind if provincial law societies disallow them from practicing law if they too have similar community standard such as TWU’s.

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