Trinity Western University is one of Canada's largest private universities and is located in Langley, BC. Normally, I would not even have heard of TWU, much less feel compelled to write a blog about this school. But a recent column in The Globe and Mail prompted some anguished thought.
Briefly, TWU is a rather new institution of higher learning. Its foundation was back in the 1960's and stemmed from a desire on the part of some well-intentioned people to found a university that not only promoted a rigorous and thorough academic programme, but combined those programmes with a devout and complete adherence to Christian ideals. Students who wish to enroll at TWU are required to sign a covenant that makes them promise to maintain high scholastic performance as well as adhere to the school's beliefs: they must forswear alcohol, drugs, premarital sex, and other behaviour the university finds contrary to its Christian ideals. The school also very publicly denounces same-sex marriage, or in fact, any acceptance of gay rights.
Recently, TWU announced its intention to begin a faculty of law. Something of an uproar ensued. Law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia ruled that those provinces would not recognize degrees in law granted by TWU because of its discriminatory stance on same-sex marriage. The Law Society of British Columbia, however, ruled in favour of recognizing these degrees. Tony Wilson, a columnist in the Globe and Mail and a "bencher" in the LSBC, justified the Society's decision as being that of a belief in "the rule of law", which states that the Canadian Constitution defends and guarantees the expression of religious ideals. Despite his standing as a lawyer and columnist of high reputation, I found his defence disturbing, to say the least.
The criticism of TWU's potential law graduates centers around the possibility that lawyers and judges and any other officer of BC's judicial system will administer a legal system while harbouring prejudicial beliefs against gay people. To me, this criticism makes perfect sense. Why have people, many of whom are paid by society, administer justice when they are publicly and openly biased against a group of people who are supposed to be protected against bias by law?
In 2001, a similar situation involving TWU emerged. In that year, the school opened a faculty of education. A red flag emerged. That faculty would, in theory, be graduating people who espoused a bias against gay people who would quite possibly find employment in the public education system of British Columbia, and would, quite possibly, be prejudiced against students or parents from same-sex relationships, or try to foist their anti-gay views upon their students in a system where that is not supposed to happen. The education system in BC, and elsewhere in Canada, is supposed to be free of such potential bias.
Yet the College of Teachers of British Columbia were thwarted in their attempt to have teaching degrees from TWU not recognized, and to have graduates from TWU not be allowed to teach in the public system. Their case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in favour of the university, citing, again, the Constitution which guaranteed religious freedom. Tony Wilson, in his Globe column, stated that, as far as he was aware, no teacher in BC who graduated from TWU had been hauled before a review board for teaching anti-gay or anti-same-sex marriage ideas in a classroom or school. It would seem, therefore, that TWU has won significant victories over their critics.
For me, the criticism and concern of TWU's graduates in law, education or any other faculty where graduates may work in some type of public system is valid. I am a strong believer in the secular nature of our society, and, while I also believe in a person's freedom to hold any religious beliefs they want, I believe more strongly that society has an obligation to recognize bigotry and radical evangelicalism where they exist and treat them with suspicion and, in most cases, prohibit people who have philosophies that contain bigotry, racism, hatred or narrow beliefs from practicing these philosophies in the performance of their duties as a lawyer or teacher etc. I believe this because I want to live in a modern society where all beliefs and life-styles are accepted. In the broadest context, this would include beliefs contained in TWU's covenant, but not when that covenant seeks to impose itself on the rest of society.
What do I mean by this? I challenge the reader of my blog to go to Trinity Western University's web site and read their mission statement. Also read their core beliefs. This is a "university" which claims a complete and strict adherence to Scripture. This is a "university" that seeks to involve itself in a training of graduates to go forth into society to excel in their chosen fields but with a decidedly Christian and evangelical zeal. This is a "university" which believes in the "Kingdom" of Christ and wants to be at the forefront of spreading this philosophy with the zeal of missionaries. What if, instead of espousing a profound dislike for same-sex marriage and, by extension, of gay rights generally, TWU espoused a belief in the natural inferiority of people of colour, or women, or Aboriginals, or people of other faiths? Would the Law Society of British Columbia or the Supreme Court of Canada rule in favour of such an institution? I would certainly hope not, and I would hope that you, the reader of this blog, would agree.
My greatest dilemma in all of this, however, is that the controversy surrounding TWU really is about the role and purpose of a university. You may have noticed in my preceding paragraph, that I wrote the word "university" in quotation marks when referencing Trinity Western University. To me, a university is supposed to be more than a place people go after high school. It is supposed to be the highest expression of human intellect, where research is performed fully and, to use TWU's word, "rigorously", where discourse and debate flourish and where there is to be no restriction on ideas or beliefs. To me, TWU's slavish devotion to its evangelical approach to everything and its mission of promoting its strong Christian beliefs in the wider context of society is anathema to what a modern university is supposed to be. Doctrine is not a guidepost in intellectual development, it is a barrier. TWU openly puts barriers on thought, and while the "university" certainly has a right to exist and preach these dogmas, it does not have a right to have its apostles preach them to students or clients in public schools or court rooms.
On its web page, TWU puts a series of Frequently Asked Questions about the gay rights issue. It is in the context of the controversy surrounding the proposed law faculty. The FAQ's are actually an imaginary debate between a concerned person and the "university" itself. The "university" claims that gay students are in fact comfortably enrolled at the school and so too are atheists and those from other faiths. They are welcome to study there: as long as they sign the covenant. If they are not comfortable doing so, they are "welcome" to go elsewhere. I find this disingenuous and repugnant. This is not freedom to choose, as TWU claims. It is a polite way of saying "it's our way or the highway." Fair enough, you might say. But it is not fair. It is exclusionary for a university. Yes, it is a private university, but it is sanctioned by the province and is graduating people who adhere to its doctrine who are ready and willing to work in society, possibly waiting for an opportunity to spread their doctrines. Politeness be damned, it is contrary to what a university is supposed to be.