LANGLEY, British Columbia, August 17, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – After fighting for years in court to get a law school going while maintaining its “community covenant” whereby students pledge to uphold Christian sexual ethics, Trinity Western University now says it will no longer ask students to make that pledge.
“The community covenant will no longer be mandatory as of the 2018-19 academic year with respect to admission of students to, or continuation of students at, the university,” reads a motion passed by the board of governors of the Christian university in Langley, British Columbia.
The private Christian college formerly required students to sign a commitment to refrain from, among other things, any sexual activity “that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”
The community covenant will still be binding on all Trinity Western University staff and professors.
It's a move that's baffling Christians in Canada, leaving many saddened.
“Trinity Western University has dropped its community covenant in hopes of getting its law school. I understand their decision. And yet I'm saddened,” wrote Paul Schratz, editor of The BC Catholic archdiocesan newspaper, on Facebook.
Diane P. Lebrun, a former teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic school, wrote on Facebook that her first reaction was the university caved to public pressure.
“[The community covenant] stood for Christianity, the 10 commandments and was an example to other institutions,” she wrote. “The wrong side has won and I [wonder] what else Trinity will have to do to please society, and what else will be demanded from other institutions. I am sad, very sad.”
The university's decision to no longer ask students to sign its community covenant comes on the heels of a Supreme Court of Canada decision earlier this year.
According to five of the judges on Canada's top court, the law societies of British Columbia and Ontario were not limiting the university's religious freedom when they denied accreditation of a proposed law school at Trinity Western on the grounds that they deemed the community covenant to be discriminatory to LGBTQ people.
Two of the judges disagreed.
In their decisions, Justices Suzanne Côté and Russell Brown wrote the laws which gave the law societies their powers also limited what they could consider in deciding whether to approve a law school. In the dissenting judges' view, freedom of religion also protects the freedom to express religious views through the covenant and to associate to study law in an educational community reflecting their religious beliefs.
” Under the [Law Society of British Columbia's] enabling statute, the only proper purpose of a law faculty approval decision is to ensure that individual graduates are fit to become members of the legal profession because they meet minimum standards of competence and ethical conduct,” wrote Côté and Brown. “Given the absence of any concerns relating to the fitness of prospective TWU law graduates, the only defensible exercise of the LSBC’s statutory discretion would have been to approve TWU’s proposed law school.”
Côté and Russell deemed this was only about whether graduates would be fit to practice law.
Then-Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, though, maintained approving the proposal for the law school was tantamount to condoning discrimination.
All that legal wrangling before the Supreme Court, though, while a factor, was not the main reason for the university to drop the covenant, said Trinity Western University president Robert Kuhn in an interview.
“The Supreme Court of Canada was a factor … but the law school is really irrelevant to this change,” said Kuhn. “We have been working for a year or more on the idea that Christian hospitality is an important part of the ethos.”
According to the motion passed by the university's board of governors, Trinity Western is making the change to be “inclusive of all students wishing to learn from a Christian viewpoint and underlying philosophy.”
The university does not have any plans to either go ahead with or shelf its plans for a law school, Kuhn insisted.
Despite dropping its community covenant for students, the university could still face roadblocks should it ever revive plans to set up a law school.
Lawyer Michael Mulligan, a partner in the Victoria, British Columbia-based firm of Milligan Tam Pearson, said in an interview the university's latest move may not go far enough.
“It's a move in the right direction but it won't clear the road for them,” he said.
Mulligan suggested the existence of the community covenant for the university's staff could still be a stumbling block for any future plans for a Trinity Western law school.
It was Mulligan who organized a special meeting that brought British Columbia's lawyers together in 2014 to overturn an earlier approval by the Law Society of British Columbia for a law school at Trinity Western. The vote at that meeting wasn't even close: 3,210 against approval for the law school; 968 in favour, said Mulligan.
Legal experts like Albertos Polizogopoulos, a partner in the Ottawa, Ontario-based firm of Vincent Dagenais Gibson, are unsure of the long-term implications of Trinity Western's decision to scuttle its community covenant for students.
“The community covenant decision might embolden certain groups or organizations wanting to take on another Christian institution. The message could go out that if you push hard enough, Christian institutions will eventually give in,” Polizogopoulos wrote on the Convivium website. “If that is how the community covenant decision is interpreted, we might see the beginning of a campaign against numerous Christian institutions.
“On the other hand, the community covenant decision might be interpreted a different way,” he wrote. “It might be interpreted as demonstrating that the Christian community will defend its rights and beliefs, but once the fight has run its course, will respect, adapt and respond to the law. In other words, you can knock us down, but we’ll keep getting up.”
Even after dropping its community covenant for its students starting this school year, Trinity Western says it remains dedicated to preserving its Christian identity.
“Let there be no confusion regarding the board of governors’ resolution,” said Kuhn in a statement. “Our mission remains the same. We will remain a biblically-based, mission-focused, academically-excellent university, fully committed to our foundational evangelical Christian principles.
“We will continue to be a Christ-centred community, one that is defined by our shared pursuit of seeking to glorify God by revealing His truth, compassion, reconciliation and hope to a world in need,” he said.