Petition backs Christian universities in academic freedom dispute

trinity westernA group of academics has launched a campaign defending Canadian Christian universities against what it terms anti-religious bullying by the country’s leading university teachers’ federation.

“What we have here is an academic union ganging up on these smaller Christian universities and I thought it was high time that people from the public universities take a stand,” said Paul Allen, an associate professor of theology at Concordia University in Montreal.

The protest is a direct response to reports that the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) issued against Trinity Western University in British Columbia more than a year ago, Crandall University in New Brunswick in July and Winnipeg’s Canadian Mennonite University in October.

“It bothered me that this is anti-religious ideology masked as supposedly an academic freedom issue,” said Mr. Allen, who started a petition to warn about CAUT’s actions. “This was an opportunity in the current [secular climate] to go after religion. Some of the most famous universities in the United States and in Europe have faith basis in their constitutions and no one would think to sneer those schools.”

The petition, which now has 140 signatures, said the investigations are unwarranted and invasive.

Mr. Allen and many others who signed the petition are members of CAUT, which has 65,000 members. Academics at the schools that were investigated are not members.

In each case the investigation concluded that true freedom was being denied to academics because of the requirement to sign a statement of Christian faith. CAUT believes that by agreeing to terms of Christian principles academics will be hemmed in by a narrow set of doctrine. The association was also worried about the future employment academics who might sign a document but later change their personal beliefs.

At Trinity Western, for example, teachers must acknowledge there is one God, the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and that Christ is God incarnate.

However, there were no complaints about any of the targeted schools before the probes were launched and none has made a secret of its requirements for hiring. In both cases, CAUT said they were not censuring the schools but rather alerting the public to the “realities of the institution.”

“This is not an attack on religious institutions,” said James Turk, executive director of CAUT. “The majority of religious schools do not have a faith test for employment. An institution that includes or excludes teachers on basis of a faith test is antithetical to what a university is supposed to be. We’d be just as concerned if a secular university made its teachers sign an ideological statement.”

Last year, Jonathan Raymond, president of Trinity Western, said the CAUT report put his school under a “cloud of suspicion” and led him to believe his school was being blacklisted.

“It is clear from the report itself that CAUT had pre-judged this matter and came to a conclusion before it explored this matter with Trinity Western,” Jonathan Raymond, president of Trinity Western, wrote to CAUT last year. “It appears that CAUT failed to take into account evidence that was contrary to its conclusions.”

Earl Davey, Canadian Mennonite’s vice-president of academics, said it would have been a legitimate discussion for CAUT to ask whether a religious school could be academically free.

“The notion of engaging with religious institutions is not an unreasonable project,” he said. “There’s good reason to be vigilant about academic freedom. But what CAUT has done is misguided. The notion one can’t do serious intellectual work in a religious institution is naive.”

The professors who have signed the petition say CAUT’s determination of a particular school lacking academic freedom because of a requirement to sign a statement of faith does not stand up to scrutiny.

“We note that the very concept of academic freedom arose historically in religiously founded institutions. In a time when colleges and universities are under great pressure to serve the interests of commercial and political initiatives, religious institutions can play a special role in preserving academic freedom,” the petition says.

It added that secular schools may also have their assumed ideologies, even if not statement of faith must be signed.

When CAUT investigated Trinity Western, an evangelical school, Mr. Turk told the Post that because the school sees the Bible as the “ultimate authority” it undermined the “central aspect of what a university should be because before [the school’s teachers] look at anything, they accept certain [notions] as automatically true.”

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