Landmark case will decide whether homosexual ‘rights’ trump freedom of religion

By Paul Tuns
The Interim

On November 9, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCOC) heard oral arguments in a case that may have a profound impact on freedom of religion in Canada.

The British Columbia College of Teachers (BCCT) is appealing to the country’s top court for the right to discriminate against Trinity Western University (TWU) because it claims the Christian university’s teaching on homosexuality would make its graduates unfit for the classroom. In 1996, BCCT, which licenses teachers, refused to approve the University’s education program citing the institution’s “community standards agreement” that students must sign that includes a ban on extra-marital sex including homosexual behaviour.

Two lower B.C. courts have already disagreed with BCCT’s decision. David Brown, a lawyer representing the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), which has intervenor status in the case, told The Interim that BCCT’s decision to refuse TWU’s application for certification of its teacher education program infringes the right to religious freedom of TWU, its students and graduates as guaranteed by Section 2(a) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Because of the wide-ranging impact the ruling will have, numerous organizations sought and were granted intervenor status. Joining the EFC on the side of TWU are the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the Christian Legal Fellowship, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. On side with BCCT are the homosexual lobby group EGALE and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation.

In a February 25, 2000 media release, the CCCB said they sought intervenor status because “the decision of the College of Teachers ‘brings into question the boundaries that will be placed around fundamental freedoms that are protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ such as the freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, and freedom of association.” They said a ruling against TWU would threaten religious schools across the country.

But the impact will be felt beyond the country’s schools. Iain Benson, executive director of the Centre for Cultural Renewal, told The Interim that if the Supreme Court overturns the lower courts it will signal its failure to understand the difference between secular and secularism. Most countries are secular in that there is a separation of church and state, but that does not mean that there must be a “separation of religion from culture,” which he describes as “illiberal and undemocratic.”

Benson describes secularism as “ideological opposition” to religion which manifests itself as hostility to any accommodation of conscience and religion within the public square. He added that society cannot long survive taking morality out of the public sphere and to do so is nothing less than a threat to our democratic and cultural survival.

Observers are worried about the potential impact of the SCOC decision on the expression of faith in our society and the independence of faith-based organizations and religious schools. The CCCB factum submitted to the SCOC said “BCCT’s decision would tend to marginalize people who held religious beliefs contrary to its view of Canadian values.”

Brown also raised the concern about allowing licensing organizations to explore the religious beliefs, such as those on matters of sexual morality, of people seeking professional accreditation. Benson added Canadians should not have to choose between their religious beliefs and having a job, which is what the BCCT is forcing TWU students to do.

Brown said “there is an undercurrent” in the argument of BCCT “that says beliefs must be relegated to the private sphere and kept out of the public.” He said by upholding the lower court decisions, the SCOC would affirm the public and civic role of religion.

A decision isn’t expected until at least July 2001.