Canada’s highest court has affirmed a legal right for a secular organization to deny entry to a Christian institution on the basis of its moral requirements.
The Supreme Court of Canada, in a pair of 7-2 rulings, found Friday that the law societies of British Columbia and Ontario can refuse accreditation to Trinity Western University’s proposed law school because of its so-called community covenant.
As a Christian institution, Trinity Western requires students and faculty to abide by biblical boundaries on sexual behavior. The covenant also requires students to abstain from, among other things, obscene language, harassment, lying, stealing, pornography and drunkenness.
Gerald Chipeur of the Canadian firm Miller Thompson LLP, which represented the university, said Canada’s high court “has abandoned the promise of freedom that led to the creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms 36 years ago.”
“Individuals will need to turn to their legislators to protect freedom of religion,” said Chipeur, who is one of thousands of lawyers allied with Alliance Defending Freedom International.
The British Columbia and Ontario law societies claimed the covenant was discriminatory, particularly against gay and lesbian students, and refused to accredit the school. The law societies of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, the Yukon and Nova Scotia agreed to recognize the school’s graduates.
ADF International said the Supreme Court “dealt a major blow to religious freedom and freedom of association.”
Paul Coleman, the organization’s executive director, contended religious universities and schools “should be free to operate according to the faith they teach and to which they adhere.”
“We are deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision,” he said. “Freedom of religion and association is not only essential for faith-based organizations, but for the functioning of democracy itself. Following this ruling, that vital freedom is now in jeopardy.”
In the minority on the court were Justices Russell Brown and Suzanne Côté, who argued the university can’t be excluded on the basis of practices that are protected by law.
“Legislatively accommodated and Charter-protected religious practices, once exercised, cannot be cited by a state-actor as a reason justifying the exclusion of a religious community from public recognition,” they wrote.
They argued that approval of Trinity Western’s proposed law school “would not represent a state preference for evangelical Christianity, but rather a recognition of the state’s duty – which [the Law Society of British Columbia] failed to observe – to accommodate diverse religious beliefs without scrutinizing their content.”
Lower courts, including the British Columbia Court of Appeal, ruled in favor of Trinity Western.
The B.C. court said the case shows how “a well-intentioned majority acting in the name of tolerance and liberalism, can, if unchecked, impose its views on the minority in a manner that is in itself intolerant and illiberal.”