If our freedom of religion and our freedom to associate mean anything all, surely they allow those who disagree to coexist, without coercing each other.
Surely it is possible, within a liberal democracy, that we can, without bloodshed, lay bare some deep rifts between value systems. But we're only fooling ourselves—playing with house money—if we don't constantly scrutinize and re-evaluate the "why" questions beneath our differences.
The preoccupation with "what" questions in the ongoing Trinity Western University (TWU) community covenant debate has left the "why" questions unanswered. Why is the "exclusive marriage clause" in the covenant? Why is the very existence of a covenant considered important for a Christian institution? How can opposing parties have reasoned and civil debate without discussing answers to these questions?
Last month, I used this space to argue that logical consistency would require TWU's critics to argue for the de-registration of the Liberal Party of Canada. That column prompted Adam Goldenberg, a former speechwriter to Michael Ignatieff, to ask me via Twitter:
Of course, there is good reason why such a provision isn't included within the TWU covenant. The covenant is not an arbitrary set of rules decided on a whim by today's leaders. It reflects a set of religious values that is held widely within a community. That community's breadth and depth are the reasons students voluntarily sign this covenant in order to attend TWU.
Although critics have focused on a single clause regarding marriage, the covenant is actually a four-page document describing what it means for a Christian community to live in accordance with biblical commandments. Its cohering framework demands loving God above all and one's neighbour as oneself. True, it comes from a particular theological lens that even some Christians would eschew, but here is precisely the point: because of our shared Charter rights, those who criticize TWU should be as free to eschew it as those who aspire to its community should be welcome to embrace it.
My subsequent debate with Michael Mulligan, the lawyer who led the charge against TWU at the BC Law Society, went further. I asked Mr. Mulligan if he would represent me in court if I applied to be a Liberal Party candidate but was denied because of my pro-life convictions. Living out these convictions for me is a necessary expression of my constitutionally-protected religious identity. But Mr. Mulligan suggested that a political party's views on abortion are not comparable to a law school's views on same-sex marriage:
I found it a surprising argument: that an orthodox understanding of marriage is irrelevant to a Christian institution. Christian Theology 101 frames the church as the bride of Christ, and marriage as an institution through which much of creation's richness—including reproduction, nurturing, and prospering—might be realized. This understanding of marriage is hardly "irrelevant" to the existence of a Christian institution; it reflects an understanding of social order that is basic for orthodox believers.
Critics describe the TWU covenant as "discriminatory" or as violating Charter values. Yet I, from my own value system, look to the very statute which establishes same-sex marriage as a legal option. Lawmakers went out of their way to protect the rights of those like me to publicly maintain a religious perspective on traditional marriage:
Freedom of conscience and religion and expression of beliefs
3.1 For greater certainty, no person or organization shall be deprived of any benefit, or be subject to any obligation or sanction, under any law of the Parliament of Canada solely by reason of their exercise, in respect of marriage between persons of the same sex, of the freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the expression of their beliefs in respect of marriage as the union of a man and woman to the exclusion of all others based on that guaranteed freedom.
Clashes between value systems very often claim lives around the world, as past Cardus speaker Paul Marshall recaps in the current Weekly Standard. In democracies, the bloodshed is supposed to be averted.
But where communities are coerced to hollow out their beliefs, and where future students—today's undergraduates, or high schoolers—see their careers of tomorrow eviscerated today because of their values, we must ask: is our system of law serving us well?
Perhaps the greatest irony in the TWU saga comes from the Nova Scotia law society, which in its April 24th vote agreed to conditionally accredit TWU graduates to the Nova Scotia bar if TWU dropped the controversial provision from its covenant. Every other aspect of TWU's program was deemed acceptable, but its religiously informed core was rejected.
There was a day when governments and their agencies attempted to control what churches believed. We assume that in our democracies, such attempts are inappropriate. Yet when a public agency like the Nova Scotia law society demands adherence to a particular secular creed, and does so under the banner of tolerance and freedom of religion ... who is being coerced? These are strange democratic times indeed.
And if democracy is going to continue to have any substance or meaning, the time to have some meaningful "why" discussions is now.