The morals of Canada's teachers

Supreme court case puts a conservative Christian university's stand on homosexuality on trial.

Every one of the 2,850 students at this private Christian university located on a quiet, almost rural, campus is asked to sign a code of conduct. That code includes no smoking, no premarital sex, no gambling, no cheating, no pornography, and no homosexual behavior.

Those prohibitions are not unusual at many conservative Christian schools. But the last part, about homosexuality, has landed Trinity Western University in Canada's Supreme Court.

In the United States, there's an enduring tension between religion and education. Now Canada awaits a decision from its highest court on whether the religious beliefs behind the Trinity code render graduates of the university unfit to teach in secular public schools. The court's decision could affect any student with religious training seeking to become a licensed professional.

In 1996 the British Columbia College of Teachers, the agency that accredits teacher training programs in this province, refused to accredit Trinity. The agency says that Trinity grads, as teachers, might be intolerant of gay students in their classrooms.

"It's the first case that squarely raises the need to balance the equality claims of the [religious] fundamentalists and the equality claims of gays and lesbians," says Toronto lawyer Andrew Lokan, representing the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which has intervened in the case, straddling both sides of the issue.

Says Guy Saffold, executive vice president of Trinity, "We've summarized the case this way: Can regulatory bodies deny a public benefit based on our... 'belief systems'?" Certification of its teacher education program, Mr. Saffold explains, is a "public benefit."

Private institutions play only a small role in Canadian higher education. But Trinity's case is fraught with implications for the role that people of faith - or of any worldview outside the mainstream - may play in public life here.

This case is in part about whether a "quasigovernmental tribunal" like the accreditation agency has authority to consider issues not only of technical competence but of human rights and constitutional freedoms. If the agency prevails, Saffold suggests, this could open the door for all manner of regulatory bodies, as distinct from courts, to judge the constitutional validity of different groups' belief systems - perhaps holding up a building permit or a business license over a theological issue.

"This case has tremendous implications for religious freedom," says William Sammon, an Ottawa attorney representing the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has intervened in the case. He notes that traditional Catholic moral teaching is quite similar to the standards embraced at Trinity.

"We made the argument that [denying accreditation] would tend to marginalize Catholic school students. They would be denied full access to public life until their religious views had been diluted or nullified."

This last phrase is a reference to the year Trinity teachers in training must currently spend at Simon Fraser University to get certified; it is evidently seen by some as serving to get Trinity students in touch with the secular world.

"What's the point of teaching respect for people's religious beliefs if we aren't allowed to have religious beliefs?" Trinity student Richard Gammie asks rhetorically.

The Civil Liberties Association has supported in principle the accreditation agency's right to consider the human rights aspects of an institution, and not just its technical competence, says Mr. Lokan. "But ... we saw the stronger value in protecting pluralism.... It was clear [Trinity's] religious doctrine was 'Love the sinner, hate the sin.' They weren't taking a position out of hatred."

Two lower courts have found in Trinity's favor. But in the Court of Appeal 2-1 ruling, Justice Anne Rowles wrote in her dissent that the Biblical references in the community standards contract (the Trinity code of conduct) categorize homosexual behavior "as unnatural, perverted and an abomination. It is reasonable to assume that neither faculty nor students of homosexual orientation could in good faith sign the contract and study or teach at TWU."

Says John Fisher, executive director of EGALE, Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere, in Ottawa, another intervenor in the case: "We think it's important to take into account the difficulties lesbians and gays have in public education systems. It's important that teachers value all sexual orientations equally.... It's important that the court place sufficient weight on these concerns."

The scenario all parties have in mind is that of a troubled young person seeking a sympathetic adult with whom to discuss his issues of sexual identity. How would a Trinity graduate respond?

"They don't need to know you share their beliefs; they need to know you have an open ear.... I let the kids do the talking. I ask provocative questions," says Mr. Gammie, a student who is at Trinity to train as a teacher after several years working in residential settings with juvenile offenders.

The Trinity case raises the question of religious belief versus practice. None of Trinity's opponents have introduced any evidence that any of the several hundred of the university's graduates at work in public schools have ever treated a student intolerantly.

Saffold says: "You can't just look at evidence of belief. You have to say, 'Does this translate into some impact on their teaching?' "

Justice Marie L'Heureux-Dube of the Supreme Court seemed to feel otherwise during the hearing of the case last month. "Evidence [of discrimination] is in the [Trinity] program.... What kind of other evidence to you want?"

A ruling in the case could come any time, but is expected in the spring.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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