Over a month has passed since the Supreme Court found against Trinity Western University, and the explosive discourse that has erupted on social media profiles in the Trinity community shows no signs of dying down. The tones of these various ongoing conversations--which are taking place primarily online, as students are off for the summer--are incredibly diverse. Many are indignant, others are celebratory, and most vacillate between the two. Conversations revolved around several different issues pertaining to the case, such as whether or not institutions have a legitimate claim to religious freedom, freedom of association, and privacy.
Essentially, the core of the contention rests on how public sphere institutions, such as Law Societies, and private sphere institutions, such as not-for-profit universities, enter into partnerships. Finally, many students and recent alumni are wondering how this decision will impact existing professional schools that have partnerships with accrediting bodies.
When the ruling had been discussed in the broader Canadian society, such as among the intervenors who gave testimony in the case, various organizations which have a mandate to advocate for civil rights and belonging for all heralded this decision as an indicator that the legal sector has an increasingly high standard for inclusion in Canadian society.
LGBTOUT, a group for LGBTQ+ students at the University of Toronto, who intervened in the SCC case, described the proposed school of law as “incredibly unjust.” They were “relieved” and “celebrating” that the ruling was in their favor. They explained in an email: “Not only does it outright forbid students from same-sex intimacy, it would create an environment in which LGBTQ2SA students had one less option for a school when seeking out an education and career in law. That objectively creates an uneven playing field and this kind of injustice and segregation has no place in 2018.” Other intervening organizations, such as the BC Humanist Association, commented: “We are deeply concerned with how the courts interpret freedom of, and freedom from, religion. We strongly support a secular state where individuals are free to form coercion to believe (or not) whatever they want. TWU prides itself as a diverse and welcoming community, with students of all faiths and none. This case had huge implications for these issues going forward.” In their comment to us, they emphasized that “nothing in this decision stops people from holding any beliefs about marriage or others' sexual identities…what it does instead is [to] ensure that we are all free and equal before the law, and that's a victory worth celebrating.” The Advocates’ Society, yet another intervenor on behalf of the law societies, also commented after the ruling: “The decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Trinity Western University appeals affirm the importance of enhancing diversity in the legal profession, starting at the early stages of admission to law school and the provincial bars,” said Brian Gover, President of The Advocates’ Society. “As The Advocates’ Society noted in our factum, law schools train prospective lawyers in advocacy and negotiation, and these skills are enhanced when students appreciate different standpoints in an environment of thoughtful conflict and contestation.”
However, the celebrations of a select few on Trinity’s campus and several significant organizations in Canadian society are not able to erase the often substantive dissension from various sectors of Canadian society, including two of the nine supreme court justices. According to Justices Cote and Brown, “ [T]here is wisdom in the idea that the public sphere is for all to share, even where beliefs differ.”
Shortly after the ruling, Ottawa’s press immediately identified Professor Janet Epp Buckingham, who runs Trinity’s Laurentian Leadership Program in Ottawa, as a solid source for comment. The comment that seemed to gain the most traction, and thus, likely had the most impact, suggested that Trinity could, or perhaps, should--depending on your interpretation--initiate a review of the community covenant with the students. The CBC report reads: “Buckingham said the university will take time to process the long and complex judgment before deciding on next steps. One option the university's board of governors could consider is lifting the mandatory covenant, she said.” While Professor Buckingham’s comment held no promises, convictions or mandates, various communities of students instantly gravitated towards this idea.
President Bob Kuhn, in an exclusive interview with Mars’ Hill, was clear that authoritative decisions about the future trajectory of the university--particularly as it relates to foundational documents such as the community covenant--would have to wait until the board meets again on August 9th.
When we inquired about the lack of urgency, President Kuhn said: “I feel that “reviews” of the community covenant have been conducted for years. It has been an ongoing conversation on campus for many years, and it will certainly continue to be.” Further, President Kuhn stressed that it was not within his purview to promise a more formal review. He stressed that the President was responsible for running the operations of the university, based on the jurisdiction granted by the Board of Governors.
Matthew Wigmore, TWU alumni and co-founder of the university community’s support network for LGBTQ+ students and alumni, OneTWU, was front and center in the media after the ruling. In an interview with Mars’ Hill, Mr. Wigmore was also quick to express his disappointment at Trinity’s choice to frame their public relations narrative around the issue of religious freedom. He argued that this was an administrative issue, one that concerned school organization, and was not a threat to individual students’ and faculties’ rights to associate and maintain their religious values. Mr. Wigmore stressed that Trinity should not be “alienating any of their students (with their PR strategy).”
Further, Mr. Wigmore stressed that an ongoing discussion of the status of the Community Covenant was “non-negotiable.” He criticized the lack of communication between the BoG and the student body, and argued for even more representation. Mr. Wigmore emphasized that “apologies” or “discussions” such as this are useless if they are not accompanied by a promise of action.
For now, it seems like we will have to wait until August 9th to find out what the plan of action will be.
I would like to close with the words of Arend Strikwerda, who was gracious enough to write for Mars’ Hill back in December. Mr. Strikwerda signed one of the affidavits, used as evidence by TWU, professing to his experience as a student:
“Unfortunately, I fear that my affidavit has legitimized the administration's "everything is fine" approach to their LGBTQ+ students. Since signing it, I have met many other LGBTQ+ alumni and students with stories different from my own who truly suffered while at TWU, and were met with either ambivalence from administration or hostility. The administration has hid behind the fact that LGBTQ+ students have attended the university, as though this means that they were not discriminated against. The willful ignorance on the complex issues at play here is painful to see in an institution of higher education.
I maintain much love for the TWU community, and a belief that the university is filled with people who understand the love of Christ. I truly hope that TWU will drastically improve their practical response to LGBTQ members of their community in the coming years, and will be able to re-examine the community covenant to define our community using inclusive instead of exclusive terminology. Although I have only been asked to comment on how my story has been represented, I would appeal to administration and to the broader community to accept that there is a diversity of opinion on this topic within honest and earnest Christian communities. Please understand that it is possible (and necessary for Christian community!) to worship and study alongside those with whom you disagree on this or any topic. Let's define Christian communities by who we accept instead of who we exclude.”