Everyday Theology: Respectful debate can lead to a compassionate understanding

When equality and religious rights butt heads, Canadians need thoughtful analysis and informed debate.

When equality and religious rights butt heads, as in the controversy over the proposed law school at Trinity Western University, Canadians need thoughtful analysis and informed debate, not knee jerk reactions.  The recent decision of the Law Society of BC to approve the proposed Faculty of Law at TWU provides a principled approach to a thorny problem.

Although the proposed law school at the privately funded Christian university has received approval from the BC Ministry of Advanced Education, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, and various provincial and territorial law societies, there remains considerable opposition to it. At issue is a clause in TWU’s “Community Covenant Agreement” that reads, “Further, according to the Bible, sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman…”

The Community Covenant Agreement at TWU is a roadmap for personal and community conduct. It is rooted in the faith of the community and based on the university’s belief that the Bible is “the divinely inspired, authoritative guide for personal and community life”.

There can be no doubt that the traditional view of marriage and sexuality expressed in the Community Covenant is a sincerely held religious belief, and in keeping with its beliefs, the university requires a level of sexual restraint from all its members, regardless of sexual orientation.  Nevertheless, the implications of the clause discriminate against the enrollment of LGBT persons, and have called into question the university’s ability to properly train individuals, who, as lawyers, must swear an oath to uphold the rights and freedoms of all people.

Because of this clause, the proposed Faculty of Law at TWU raises complex questions about religious freedom, freedom of association and equality.

As the deliberations of the Law Society of BC make clear, there are no easy answers when the rights of two disparate groups conflict. Because rights and freedoms are not absolute, it is sometimes necessary to balance them against each other. In the balancing act, there are no clear winners, as the Law Society debate illustrates; TWU did not come out smelling like a rose even though the Benchers voted in its favour.

Whether we agree or disagree with the decision to approve a faith-based law school at an institution that covenants with its students to uphold a traditional view of sexuality, the process of respectful and informed debate can help us more comprehensively grasp nuanced issues, and can lead us to a more compassionate understanding of those whose beliefs, lifestyles, and identities differ from our own.  We cannot “live and let live” only when the manner of living falls into line with our worldview. To do so runs the risk of swapping one form of intolerance for another.

Trail resident Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com.

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