Determining the appropriate boundaries of freedom, particularly religious freedom, can be complicated. Trinity Western University is a private Christian school outside of Vancouver in British Columbia. TWU wants to open a law school. The complication is that they require faculty, staff and students to sign a covenant that prohibits same-sex intimacy. In other words, they discriminate against homosexuals in their hiring and admissions based on their religious beliefs. In order to open a law school, TWU needs to be accredited by a Law Society. The Law Societies in B.C., Nova Scotia and Ontario have all refused to accredit TWU on the basis of its discriminatory practices. In response, TWU is claiming their “concerns for religious freedom and liberty of conscience” are being violated. Does not allowing TWU to have a law school infringe upon its religious freedom?
Most people would likely agree that a private religious organization that gets no support from the government has a right to only admit people who conform to its religious views—whether it’s a church or a school. That’s freedom of religion and it isn’t dependent on the correctness of the organization’s views.
The B.C. Law Society’s refusal is based on both “statutory mandate and constitutional obligations” as well as the view of its members that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong. It isn’t a religious organization, but the society and its members clearly have a moral view regarding this discrimination. So the irony is that TWU is attempting to preserve its own “liberty of conscience” while forcing the members of Law Society to violate their own standards of morality.
Does the freedom and morality of a religious organization trump the freedom and morality of people who may or may not be religious but are members of a nonreligious organization? More fundamentally, does refusing to accredit a law school at a university really mean that religious freedom is being compromised?
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states, “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
- Freedom of conscience and religion;
- Freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
- Freedom of peaceful assembly; and
- Freedom of association.”
Clearly freedom of religion is protected, but operating an accredited law school appears to have nothing to do with religious activities.
The issue is not black and white, but the line of thinking that TWU is pursuing seems tenuous at best. On the basis of its religious principles, TWU claims the right to discriminate in its hiring and admissions. That seems well established as a protected right. However, it is also demanding that the B.C. Law Society implicitly endorse its discrimination so that it can enter a field that has nothing to do with religious practice. Freedom of religion should be an inviolable right, but that right should be centered around the freedom required to practice religion–beliefs, expression, speech and assembly. TWU is expecting the right to discriminate against or exclude a segment of society in an area unrelated to practicing religion. That seems like an expansionist approach to defining religious liberty to me, but I guess it will be left to the courts to decide.
TWU covenant not unlawful, Nova Scotia judge rules in law school case: Vancouver Sun