On May 17, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCOC) ruled that the British Columbia College of Teachers cannot discriminate against Trinity Western University because of the school’s teaching on homosexuality, a decision which is being viewed as a partial victory for religious freedom in Canada.

The BCCT, which accredits teachers in B.C., claimed that TWU’s “Community Standards” document which is signed by all students and includes a prohibition on homosexual behaviour, would result in biased teachers and the creation of hostile environments to homosexuals in the classroom. The BCCT was appealing two British Columbia court decisions that ruled in favour of TWU and rejected the accreditation agency’s claim that graduates of the Christian university discriminated against homosexuals in the classroom.

The SCOC decision recognizes that freedom of conscience and religion must co-exist with equality guarantees. In its 8-1 decision, written by Justices Frank Iacobucci and Michel Bastarache, the court said the BCCT failed to take “into account the impact of its decision on the right to freedom of religion” for TWU students.

Dr. Guy Saffold, executive vice-president of Trinity Western, said, “The Supreme Court has affirmed the government cannot discriminate against people who uphold their religious convictions while demonstrating understanding and respect for the views and dignity of others.” He told The Interim public bodies such as the BCCT must make decisions on “a factual basis, not a set of assumptions.” He said the decision was a “strong statement on religious freedom in this country” because the Court “affirmed that in our society, people cannot be arbitrarily penalized or barred from participating in public life simply because they hold religious views.”

Currently, after four years of study at TWU students take one year of study at Simon Fraser University to complete their teacher certification. In 1995, TWU sought approval from the BCCT for its own teacher education program but was denied accreditation because the agency said “the document which requires students to agree to not engage in homosexual behavior was discriminatory” and “not consistent” with provincial laws.

Iain Benson, executive director of the Centre for Cultural Renewal, told The Interim the court’s decision was a good one, but that it has some troubling consequences. Benson said that while obviously the recognition of freedom of conscience and religion by the courts is welcomed, the SCOC “put off what it must eventually deal with,” namely the distinction between a person’s thoughts and actions.

Janet Epp Buckingham, legal counsel for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, an intervenor in the case, told The Interim the distinction between thought and action must be dealt with, and probably will be if the Brockie case makes its way to Supreme Court. (Scott Brockie is the Ontario printer who refused as a matter of conscience a job producing homosexual literature. The Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled that he had no right of refusal based on conscience or religious freedom). Buckingham said the Court has found “freedom of belief to be broader than freedom of action,” the only question being how much so. She said Canadian Christians are wondering “at what point is putting faith into action going to be limited.”

She said the Court affirmed religious freedom when it doesn’t conflict with other ideals such as equality, but that it set out no standards for determining what rights predominate when they do conflict.

The Court ordered the BCCT to approve the proposed teacher education program, and Saffold told The Interim he doesn’t anticipate any problems working together to implement a teaching program at TWU.

Still, both Benson and Buckingham worry that the scope of the BCCT’s role was not limited to determining skills and knowledge. In its decision, the Court found nothing in the TWU Community Standards “that indicates that graduates of TWU will not treat homosexuals fairly and respectfully. Indeed, the evidence to date is that graduates … have become competent public school teachers, and there is no evidence before the court of discriminatory conduct by any graduate.” Benson said the court may have ruled against Western Trinity if the BCCT had evidence of graduates who “discriminated” against homosexual students. Buckingham wondered how many graduates would have to act inappropriately to prove a problem inherent in the WTU program? “Would BCCT be allowed to not certify Western Trinity students if even just one graduate discriminated?” she asked.

Buckingham said the BCCT tried to establish that Trinity Western graduates would discriminate “based on the minuscule evidence of a lifestyle policy.” She said the Community Standards policy “is not sufficient reason to deny a public benefit such as employment” and that if the BCCT was successful it could have created a “religious test for a wide variety of public benefits.”

Benson said the consequences of the decision are much wider than TWU’s accreditation because the decision goes to the heart of religious freedom and our understanding of the secular.

He said that secularism has become an ideology that is anti-religious because it fails to recognize that the secular, properly understood, is “the realm of competing beliefs, some of which are animated by religious conviction and some of which are not,” but that “the idea that it is faith-free is erroneous.” He said a secular society “separates state and religion but not the state from religion.” Indeed, a secular society could allow “a rich cooperation between church and state.”

He said the majority decision “is a step in the right direction” because it recognizes the role of religious institutions in society and a “meaningful pluralism.” He said the justices “attempted to recognize an appropriate idea of the secular” but struggled because cultural elites, especially the nation’s law schools, have long been hostile to religion. He cites the minority opinion of Justice Clair L’Heureux-Dube as an example of anti-religious sentiment from the bench and said future decisions will be informed by – and have to counter – the secularistic arguments espoused by her position.

In her dissenting opinion Justice L’Heureux-Dube demonstrated her hostility to religion and belief that when freedom of conscience and religion conflict with other liberties or the goal of equality, religion and conscience must always give way. She wrote “It is not patently unreasonable for the BCCT to believe that a component of the noble effort to eradicate public school homophobia, whether perceived or actual, is to require TWU students to take a fifth year of training outside the supervision of that institution.”

She demonstrated her hostility to religion when she wrote, “To suggest that we must await harm is to suggest that we will experiment upon children when, in fact, within our power is the power to expose the students at TWU before they enter into the public school system to that range of values that they are expected to extricate and live by while working within that public education system.”

Her critics say she, like the BCCT, automatically assume Christian bigotry towards homosexuals. Benson said “the idea that personal, respectful points of view are a breech of employment standards,” is a typical example of anti-religious sentiment from a secularist.