Things have come to a sorry pass in Canada. Trinity Western University, the country’s largest privately funded Christian university, was established by the Evangelical Free Church of America in 1962. It aims to promote “total student development through … deepened commitment to Jesus Christ and a Christian way of life.”
As part of this commitment, students and faculty agree to a covenant that requires them to abstain from a number of actions, including cheating, plagiarism, use of alcohol on campus and sexual intimacy outside of traditional marriage.
In 2012 the university opened a law school. Two years later the Law Society of British Columbia, by a referendum vote of 3,210-968, denied it accreditation. This meant that Trinity Western law graduates could not sit for the bar of British Columbia. And last month the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the law society’s decision.
The problem with Trinity Western’s education plan, the court held, was that it forbade LGBTQ students to engage in sexual activity during their time at school. The university could not “condemn a practice so central to the identity” of a group “without thereby discriminating against its members and affronting their human dignity.”
But it is a fair question whether LGBTQ students would have been harmed in anything but their feelings if the law society had approved the school’s application. The creation of 60 spots at Trinity Western would not have diminished their opportunity to enter the legal profession. (Indeed it might have improved their odds, by reducing slightly the competition for spots elsewhere.) Why would a gay student want to attend Trinity Western anyway, and subject himself to an unwelcome constraint, except to play dog in the manger?
Perhaps the court had in mind an LGBTQ applicant who was sincerely drawn to evangelical Christianity but had trouble with a few of its demands — in particular the ones about sex. For someone like that, the covenant would not just be a cause of hurt feelings, but an obstacle to joining a community he would genuinely like to be a part of.
But all of us have trouble with the requirements of the devout life. I might prefer a waiver of the rules about drinking. You might want some flexibility around plagiarism. Must we make all the rules optional, lest anyone be offended? And if not, what’s so special about the Sixth Commandment?
The court might say that sexual intimacy, unlike intemperance or theft, is not a sin, even outside of heterosexual marriage. Rather, it is a practice “central to (personal) identity” and “human dignity.” That’s now the revised standard version of the Decalogue.
Our own Supreme Court invoked this version in Obergefell v. Hodges. Intimacy between same-sex partners, it said, is “central to individual dignity and autonomy.”
A modern pluralistic society might decide, as ours has, to recognize same-sex marriage. But when it blessed that practice, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed that religious institutions may still “continue to advocate with utmost sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.”
Canada allows same-sex marriage too. But it is less interested in being a pluralistic society. Everyone must see things the new way. If Trinity Western wants students to observe all Ten Commandments, it will have to close its law school. And tomorrow, perhaps, its nursing program. Then its education and human services programs. Then its pre-professional degree programs.
O Canada, the national anthem, implores, “God keep our land glorious and free!” Maybe it’s time to amend that too.
Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Catholic University’s website is www.cua.edu.
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Would you be comfortable with a school that didn’t allow Christians to join, or perhaps a school that said it was happy to admit Christians, just not “active” ones who did things like pray, or read the Bible, or go to Church? I think I would be happy to live in any version of society that lets laws be applied equally. So if you are willing to accept that private liberal schools can make students and professors sign pledges that they will treat everyone regardless of race or sexual orientation equally, specifically including the endorsement of same-sex marriage, then I think it would be fair for a law school like Trinity Western to do the same thing. Similarly, if Catholic colleges get to fire professors in gay marriages, then I would like private secular colleges to have the right to fire professors that don’t believe in LGBT equality/gay marriage. What I don’t want, is for religious institutions to get special rights, while non-religious institutions with deeply felt moral convictions don’t get them. Just because my beliefs are moral but non-religious in nature, doesn’t mean I don’t want to see them exercised or made real in a community, just like you do. Would that sound like a fair compromise?