The covenant and the courts: Inside a Christian university’s law school crusade

Interesting good long read about Trinity Western, including the policies of its covenant and the realities of student life:

…After so many years of debate, members of the tight-knit Trinity Western community are used to hearing arguments that bear little relationship to their daily lives.

“Academic staff are required to teach students that the Bible is the ultimate, final, and authoritative guide by which ethical decisions are to be made,” Elaine Craig, a Dalhousie University law professor who is widely cited among those opposed to accreditation, wrote in a 2013 paper.

“This compulsory ideological conformity effectively excludes students on the basis of their sexual orientation or marital status,” the United Church of Canada argued in its factum to the Supreme Court. “It is also demeaning and degrading of these individuals, explicitly characterizing them as immoral outcasts, who are worthy of being shunned, or excluded by being pitied.”

“The Covenant is a binding contract. It governs conduct both on and off campus,” intervenors Start Proud and Outlaws intoned in their factum.

But as anyone who has signed a code of conduct or even scanned a list of institutional policies knows, rules are rarely followed to the letter, and recriminations are anything but guaranteed. It is just so at Trinity. Last year the campus newspaper, Mars’ Hill, conducted a survey of covenant compliance. While unscientific, the results were nevertheless revealing: 28 per cent of respondents said they had used marijuana or other non-medical drugs; 55 per cent admitted to drinking to excess; 32 per cent admitted to sex outside marriage; four per cent admitted to having an abortion.

There are also LGBTQ students at Trinity, as media have reported. Yet the suggestion they might feel welcome despite the covenant “defies logic,” Craig argued in another paper in 2014. “Not only are prospective students required … not to engage in same-sex sexual intimacy under any circumstances, but they are also required to police each other for any breaches of this promise.” (The covenant says it “may at times” be necessary for students “to hold one another accountable,” as most honour codes do.)

Lawyers are naturally going to argue from written policies. But such sweeping statements are simply irreconcilable with the observable reality on campus. And that gets up a lot of noses in the Trinity Western community, including those who would very much like the university to change.

Trinity was first founded as a two-year college on a dairy farm. Today there are all manner of degree options, including education and nursing.(Ben Nelms for National Post)

There is no shortage of such people: In a recent open letter to the community bearing 287 signatures, an LGBTQ-affirming group of Trinity students, faculty and staff, alumni and parents called OneTWU argued “that homophobia and transphobia are affronts to our Creator God,” and that “reconciliation and healing is needed to bridge the gap between the Christian church and the LGBTQ+ community at large.”

Two hundred and eighty-seven signatures is a fair haul in such a small community. And the letter’s language reflects conflicted attitudes about the prospective law school: some strongly believe in Trinity’s right to hold its religious views, even while teaching law, but are also weary of the endless battle and the toll it takes on students.

Bryan Sandberg, who graduated in 2014 and has spoken before about his mostly positive experiences as a gay student at Trinity, says that most in the community are “not rampaging bigots” — “they’re just people” — but the community covenant “explicitly creates this space where homophobia is allowed to exist, where LGBTQ people are viewed as lesser.”

In a word, he says, it is “uncomfortable.”

“These are people who are growing up in churches, who are born into Christian families, and there’s nothing they can do about that. Their faith becomes an extremely important part of who they are,” Cam Thiessen, a graduate student in biblical studies who signed the OneTWU letter as an “ally,” says of Trinity students. Coming to grips with their sexuality in such an environment can obviously be terribly difficult.

“This could have been an opportunity for Trinity to begin making steps toward a more ecumenical approach to this issue — recognizing that there are Christians who are affirming of LGBTQ people and there are entire denominations that are very affirming,” including some evangelical groups, he argues.

“Instead it’s a ton of money and a ton of time going towards fighting for the right to exercise some sort of authority over this group of people” — time and money that Thiessen wishes could go toward “hiring more faculty, or bringing in more guest speakers, or bringing in better resources for people in the LGBTQ community to understand what their place is in this type of religious society.”

In the meantime, however, many students say Trinity is a far more welcoming, tolerant and diverse campus than outsiders realize. Many, including LGTBQ community members and their allies, believe a place they love and where they have felt loved has been unfairly caricatured….

Source: The covenant and the courts: Inside a Christian university’s law school crusade

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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