The Supreme Court of Canada will be holding two days of hearing Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 regarding Trinity Western University’s right to express its evangelical Christian character through a community covenant that requires students, faculty and staff to adhere to certain moral standards. Photo courtesy of Trinity Western University via Facebook

Catholic voices to be heard at Supreme Court in religious freedom case

  • August 3, 2017

OTTAWA – Canada’s Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Civil Rights League have been granted intervener status in an important religious freedom case to be heard later this year by the Supreme Court.

The case involves Trinity Western University’s right to express its evangelical Christian character through a community covenant that requires students, faculty and staff to adhere to certain moral standards. Among these standards at the B.C. university is abstinence from sexual activity outside of a marriage between a man and a woman.

Canada’s Chief Justice granted the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), the Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL), the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and other groups leave to intervene.

The surprise move came July 31 when Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin added a second day of hearings to allow all 32 intervener applicants to be heard. An original ruling by Justice Richard Wagner had restricted the number of interveners to nine to be heard in one day.

It is rare for the Supreme Court to hold two days of hearings or to allow so many interveners. The case will be heard on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.

McLachlan’s decision also granted various LGBT rights groups intervener status, which had been shut out by Wagner.

“The change in the court’s position is certainly a recognition of the significance of the importance of the case,” said Phil Horgan, CCRL president.

The case came to the Supreme Court after three provincial law societies — in British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia — said they would not recognize graduates of TWU’s proposed law school because, in their view, the TWU covenant discriminates against LGBT students and faculty.

“Trinity Western is entitled to maintain its religious views, including its position on a biblical understanding of marriage,” Horgan said. “That view is shared by the teachings of the Catholic Church.

“Are Catholic lawyers to be denied accreditation or entry into professions for having such views? The implications for our Catholic institutions of education, or health care, likewise should not be compelled to have key teachings suppressed in order to participate in the public square.”

The CCRL submission, being made in conjunction with the Faith and Freedom Alliance and Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver, will focus on the need to recognize authentic pluralism — the understanding that Canadian law and society is comprised of differing viewpoints, and therefore other views should be respected, said Horgan.

“Our system recognizes differences of views, rather than imposing a majoritarian viewpoint, when it comes to the place for religion or religious institutions in the public square,” he said.

He said the decision by law societies to deny accreditation to TWU law graduates, “represents a denial of dissentient religious viewpoints.” He called it a “civic totalist approach” that “becomes quite illiberal in its application.”

Bruce Clemenger, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, warned that the Supreme Court’s ruling in the TWU case could have far-ranging implications affecting not only educational institutions but any organization with a religious character seeking a licence or accreditation from government bodies.

“We want to stand with Trinity Western and we want to affirm with them that education can be seen as a communal enterprise, and it’s important for these institutions to maintain the integrity of those communities, theologically and missionally,” Clemenger said.

This will be the second time TWU has come before the Supreme Court over challenges involving its covenant. In 2001, the university won against the British Columbia College of Teachers that refused to accredit graduates of TWU’s teachers’ college.

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