These days, if you want to suppress awkward ideas you don’t ban them. Instead you get employers or professional bodies to close ranks and say that people are perfectly free to hold this view or that, but not if they want to work in a particular place or in a particular job. Oddly enough, this is something that seems particularly to have affected principled Christians. Thus in the UK we have seen an NHS manager dismissed for making the outrageous suggestion that children benefit from having a mother and a father; a teacher sacked (and, outrageously, reported to Prevent) for telling a student about her faith; and a student removed from a social work course for his temerity in opposing gay marriage in an online forum.
But to see real progress by the great and the good in sidelining opponents of the Zeitgeist you need to cross the Atlantic. Beside Canada the UK is a mere tyro: as witness an affair that a couple of weeks ago ended up in the Ottawa Supreme Court.
Trinity Western University (TWU) is a private university in Langley, a town on the Fraser River in British Columbia, associated with the Evangelical Free Church of Canada. It planned to start a law school, and asked the ten provincial bar associations to accredit it (that is, accept its students’ degrees as proper qualifications). The two which seriously mattered, British Columbia and Ontario, declined. Why? Not academic respectability or legal competence, but TWU’s morals. This wasn’t, note, a question of moral laxity. On the contrary, it was the exact opposite. The real problem was that TWU as a seriously Christian institution demands that all students undertake to follow a covenant that requires following certain biblical rules of behaviour, including eschewing all sex outside heterosexual marriage. That, said the lawyers, was unacceptable.
Now, Canada has a Charter of Rights – a constitutional document, no less – that guarantees freedom of religion. Understandably TWU objected to its students being disadvantaged for no other reason than that they had chosen to attend it and obey its principles, pledge and all. It sued. But to no avail. The Supreme Court essentially regarded the religion question as an annoying side issue. Much more important, it thought, was the lawyers’ leaders’ right to show a commitment to equality and diversity, and their desire to stand shoulder to shoulder with LGBT colleagues who didn’t like what they saw in TWU. If this got in the way of a few religious kooks, they said (obviously in more measured language), that was just too bad. The decision, unsurprisingly, was welcomed with open arms by large numbers of law professors and human rights activists.
This whole episode is depressing for a number of reasons. The most obvious is the sheer effect of the decision. Stripping away the honeyed legal language, what it allowed the the self-satisfied solons of Vancouver and Toronto to do was to prevent people becoming lawyers, not because of anything they thought, or practised, or said, or indeed because of any personal characteristics; but simply because an institution they had chosen to attend applied, as it had a legal right to do, a moral code that the lawyers’ organisations found over-restrictive and discriminatory.
Secondly, what isn’t clear – except, no doubt, to a Canadian human rights lawyer – is just how refusing to accept TWU students will promote diversity, or indeed increase the number of LGBT lawyers in practice. Those who don’t like the TWU regime, whether for reasons of conviction or sexuality, have plenty of other universities to go to. The idea of numbers of LGBT students clamouring to study at TWU but feeling themselves unfairly excluded by its strict conduct pledge, and thus indirectly discouraged from the practice of law, is preposterous (though this didn’t stop the majority judges invoking it, apparently with a straight face: see, if interested in the ability to believe five impossible things before breakfast, Para.83 of the judgment here). Indeed, adding TWU to the approved list might, one would have thought, have increased diversity by giving opportunities to one specific minority – namely, devout evangelical Christians.
Thirdly, there is one telling feature about the decision. The Canadian Charter of Rights expressly protects freedom of religion. It does not protect or even mention diversity of access to the legal profession. Yet the Supreme Court chose to protect the latter over the former. If not a right, it was, said the Court, a value inherent in it, which the guardians of the legal profession had a function to protect, even if there was a cost in freedom of religion. Or, put another way, it was quite all right for abstract collective interests as seen by the great and the good to prevail over the right of the individual to be taken for what he or she is. This may be the new Trudeau-style way to look at equality, but it sure seems hard on the students of TWU.
TWU may well now abandon its law school project. The result: a reduction in the choice available to would-be lawyers in Canada. But never mind; the lawyers will sleep easy in their beds, happy in their belief that they have stood firm for diversity and LGBT rights.