In 1995, Trinity Western University sought certification of a teaching program from the British Columbia College of Teachers. The BCCT governing council refused. Why?
Well, BCCT did not approve of TWU’s Mission Statement: “To develop godly Christian leaders: positive, goal-oriented, university graduates with thoroughly Christian minds;” still less with its student conduct code that required students “to refrain from practices that are contrary to biblical teaching …including premarital sex, adultery, homosexual behaviour.”
The dispute went to court. In 1997 the B.C. Supreme Court decided in TWU’s favour. So, too, the following year, did the B.C. Court of Appeal. But the BCCT launched an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. On May 17, 2001 the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed by 8-1 the BCCT appeal, but the majority judges warned, “The freedom to hold beliefs is broader than the freedom to act on them.”
Suppose this case. A student comes to a TWU graduate for counselling in a B.C. school. The student says he is troubled by feelings of attraction toward students of his own sex. He asks the teacher if such feelings are wrong. The teacher says: “No. No problem.” The Supreme Court of Canada is content.
But suppose the teacher says there are books, websites and materials prepared by former homosexuals that explain how one can resist such feelings. Has the teacher crossed the line between beliefs and action? Or, suppose the teacher replies: “Well, you have asked for my opinion, so I’ll give it to you. The Bible teaches that homosexuality is sinful.”
The Supreme Court left no doubt how the latter situation would be dealt with. “Acting on beliefs is a very different matter. If a teacher in the public school system engages in discriminatory conduct, that teacher can be subject to disciplinary proceedings before the BCCT.”
In essence, the Supreme Court has ruled that there is a right to believe what you want as long as you never communicate those beliefs or attempt to put them into practice.
TWU ought not to have celebrated such a lilliputian view of religious freedom. If I may paraphrase the TWU victory in words that might still have a certain resonance among its own faculty and students: you are free to be hearers of the words, but not doers; you may render unto God when on campus, but only to Caesar off campus. By their deeds, no one shall know them.
Ian Hunter is professor emeritus from the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Onario in London.