Chris Selly: Religious education under fire across Canada
“You can’t extricate the faith. It’s woven throughout the fabric of the school.” These are the words of an Ontario Catholic school board spokesperson, responding to a father’s demands that his son be exempted from all religious content at his high school. They offer a clear window into an objectively bizarre situation: In this otherwise obsessively progressive jurisdiction, where questioning same-sex marriage or abortion rights is politically anathema, the government doesn’t just tolerate schools that distribute pro-life petitions and officially believe homosexual relationships are “intrinsically disordered.” It fully funds them.
And it isn’t going to change. Ontario’s new premier, Kathleen Wynne, who is gay and fairly left-wing for a Liberal, recently pledged not to allow herself to be “distracted” by such a nugatory “governance discussion.” For that matter, she has been an enthusiastic proponent of prayer in public schools — including during the controversy over Valley Park Middle School in Toronto, where Muslim students, segregated by sex, are led in congregational prayer on Friday afternoons in the cafeteria.
One might therefore think that the notion of religious education is on pretty safe ground in Canada. But private, Christian Trinity Western University’s (TWU) bid to open a law school tells a different story. In a letter to the Federation of Canadian Law Societies, which accredits law schools, Bill Flanagan, president of the Council Association of Law Deans, objected to a binding “covenant” that TWU students must sign, forbidding any “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”
“Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is unlawful in Canada and fundamentally at odds with the core values of all Canadian law schools,” he wrote.
The legal profession can do as it likes. More interesting has been watching Canadian progressives come down massively against TWU, on grounds that raise many questions about much larger issues.
One argument is that TWU will churn out shoddy lawyers. “One of the skills required by the Federation is the ability to ‘identify and engage in critical thinking about ethical issues in legal practice,’ ” writes Elaine Craig of Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law. “The statement of faith and community covenant required of its faculty, staff and students reveal that TWU would be unable to provide a learning environment that could satisfy the ethics and professionalism competency required by the Federation.”
This is a huge reach. Some of the highest-ranked law schools in the United States are Catholic — Notre Dame, Boston College, Georgetown — and have similar policies on the books. Indeed, Trinity Western has a good academic reputation; its once-controversial teacher’s college seems less so nowadays; and the notion that Bible-thumpers can’t be good educators is sure novel. But then, all of this is relatively novel, so never mind lawyers for a second. If people whose religious views differ from Canada’s human rights legislation are incapable of teaching critical thinking or ethics to grown adults at a private university, what are we doing letting them try it with young children? .
More common than the academic argument is the notion that the policy is discriminatory, and thus must not stand. “Would the governing bodies of the legal profession in Canada approve a law school that prohibited mixed-race sexual intimacy?” Ms. Craig asks. It has been echoed a thousand times on Twitter: What if it were blacks, not gays, being banned (or so goes the argument) from campus?
Being a private university, libertarians would argue TWU should be allowed to admit whomever it wants. That’s more or less where I’m at: A private university you wouldn’t want to go to anyway is not the equivalent of a Woolworth’s lunch counter, or of government marriage benefits. But the mainstream reaction, if we discovered some hitherto unknown whites-only university in the B.C. interior, would be to shut the place down — not its law school, not its engineering faculty, the whole place. If people think TWU is doing the moral equivalent, why are we only talking about its law school?
There’s no moral difference between anti-gay discrimination and anti-black discrimination. And the only legal difference is that a religious freedom defence is far more likely in the first case than in the second — and, perhaps, that we’re only just getting rolling down this road. The full spectrum of gay rights is a newer development.
If TWU, a private institution, is denied its law school, it will sure be interesting to see what’s left of religious education in Canada in 50 years.
– Chris Selly is a writer with the National Post. Read his original column at http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/author/cselley/