The education program at Trinity Western University (TWU) in Langley, British Columbia, gave Katrina Spencer two things: a degree and a Christian worldview that she believes will equip her to serve her future students.

Starting in a year, TWU students will have a third benefit: legal permission to finish their five-year course of study at the Christian university, courtesy of the Supreme Court of Canada.

The court's 8-1 decision on May 17 overturned a requirement imposed by the British Columbia College of Teachers (BCCT) that TWU students finish their program at a nearby secular school. This requirement was based on the fear that the 3,000-student evangelical university might produce teachers unsympathetic to homosexual students since the school's policy forbids sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage.

Spencer says that the country's largest private Christian university should have the same rights as other teacher-training institutions in Canada. "Trinity has an outstanding education program," Spencer says. "They push you hard, and they work you hard."

For critics citing TWU's opposition to homosexual behavior, the question was not about academics but indoctrination. The high court ruled that the school does not discriminate against homosexuals when it requires its 325 education students to sign a community-standards agreement that bans homosexual conduct, among other behaviors.

The decision is good news for dozens of other Christian institutions in Canada, making it easier for them to require lifestyle standards of students and staff, says Gary Walsh, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC). "This will put to rest the fears of other religiously based colleges and seminaries. … that their students will face discrimination upon graduation," Walsh says.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Claire L'Heureux Dube wrote that "a lack of expertise among school staff creates missed opportunities to help lesbian, bisexual, and gay youth before a crisis develops."

And John Fisher, executive director of a homosexual-rights advocacy group that intervened on the BCCT's behalf, says that Trinity graduates may not be able to counsel homosexual students "in a sensitive and nonjudgmental way."

Canada's highest court agreed with two lower-court decisions, saying the presumption that TWU's teachers would be prejudiced against homosexuals "is speculative, involving consideration of the potential future beliefs and conduct of graduates."

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The ruling ends six years of legal wrangling that cost the university 1.6 million Canadian dollars and put the institution under a cloud. "It's very good to have that cloud lifted," says Guy Saffold, the executive vice president.

The case began in 1995, when Trinity applied to the BCCT for full accreditation of its ten-year-old education program. The BCCT rejected the application after reviewing Trinity's community-standards document, which students must sign.

Canadian evangelicals, representing less than 10 percent of the nation's 30 million people, have said for years that they face frequent discrimination because their conservative moral and political views are out of favor with the majority of Canadians.

Fundamental Right

The Supreme Court ruling, written by Justices Frank Iaccobucci and Michel Bastarache, says the BCCT had no reason to assume that TWU grads would be prejudiced. Nor does the BCCT have the right to decide what kind of beliefs teachers should hold, the justices said.

Instead, the opinion says, the college should simply ensure that teachers are academically qualified. "This is a question of law that is concerned with human rights and not essentially educational matters," the judges wrote.

In a related court case, the EFC has intervened on behalf of a Toronto printer who refused a print job for a homosexual advocacy organization. The Ontario Human Rights Court fined Scott Brockie $5,000 for refusing to print the literature. Brockie says to do so would imply an endorsement of homosexual behavior. A coalition of Christian groups will argue for the right of business owners to refuse work that goes against their deeply held moral convictions.

The individual freedoms enshrined in Canada's Charter of Rights have been upheld, says Janet Epp Buckingham, legal counsel to the EFC, which intervened in the TWU case. The court's ruling, she says, means that "no one right under the Charter has priority over another."

"We really see this as a religious-freedom case, pure and simple," says Epp Buckingham, who describes the TWU victory as "the most important decision on religious freedom in years."

Spencer says that TWU is not intolerant. The school, she says, teaches that "Christianity is about love and respect."

Related Elsewhere:

Online court records of The Supreme Court of Canada include the recent Trinity Western ruling. Also online are previous rulings from the B.C. Court of Appeal and the B.C. Supreme Court.

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Trinity Western University posted a site for background and developments in the legal challenge. Highlights are an extensive timeline of the issue and essays on what was at stake.

The British Columbia College of Teachers issued online press releases in PDF form on the case.

The ruling was covered in Canadian newspapers including Vancouver Sun, The National Post, and The Globe and Mail.

A previous Globe and Mail article examined the TWU pledge.

The National Post argued that while a step in the right direction, this ruling is not the all-encompassing victory Canadians need to ensure true freedom of religion.

Canadian Christian publications ChristianWeek and B.C. Christian News also covered the decision and evangelicals' reaction to it.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and its British Columbian counterpart both supported TWU. EGALE supported the British Columbia Teacher's College.

Related Christianity Today articles on Trinity Western University include:

Canadian High Court May Curb Religious Freedom | Trinity Western University denied accreditation for saying homosexuality a sin. (May 16, 2000)

Trinity Western Accreditation Ordered | British Columbia Supreme Court approves school's application for accreditation. (Oct. 27, 1997)

Teachers Group Contests School's 'Sexual Sin' Policy | Province's accrediting agency denies certification because of school policy on homosexuality. (May 19, 1997)

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