The world, we are told, is about to end in the aftermath of this week’s U.S. election. Partisans on both sides predict apocalypse based purely on presidential choice.
By contrast, recent days north of the border have brought, if not perfect achievement of peace, order and good government, then two heartening incidents of prudence, wisdom and hope.
Typically, Canadian eyes and ears have been so fixed on the Intimations of Götterdammerung to the south that the good news at home has slipped by barely noticed. In fairness, one of the events was a reversal of course by a relatively obscure organization called Universities Canada, an umbrella organization that bills itself as the voice of the country’s post-secondary institutions. It was done quietly behind closed doors with nary a peeping journalist at the keyhole.
Yet as Cardus President Michael Van Pelt points out, the consortium’s decision to reject a proposed change to its membership rules has positive implications for up to 80,000 charitable organizations across Canada, especially those that are faith-based.
Protection of those charities was the reason Van Pelt went public in September with a Convivium column revealing plans by Universities Canada to effectively strip faith-based schools of membership. They could continue to belong to UC only if they stopped requiring staff and students to follow so-called “community covenants” binding them to precepts such as refraining from sex outside of heterosexual marriage.
As Van Pelt notes, the membership change would have prevented faith-based schools from having employment policies requiring creedal fidelity, which is a long established exemption in both human rights and Charter jurisprudence for all faith-based employers. The Catholic Church, for example, is entitled to require that its priests be Catholic.
Had the Universities Canada measure been allowed to stand, Van Pelt says, it would have been only a matter of time before charities with similar policies would have found themselves under the same legal pressure.
At the end of October, the membership of Universities Canada rejected the proposed membership changes. It adopted what Van Pelt judges to be far a more moderate and amenable approach to faith-based schools.
“Our goal really was to get a public conversation started, and that happened,” Van Pelt said. “Obviously, the Universities Canada membership took the matter very seriously and gave it thoughtful consideration. I’m thankful they did, and very pleased by their decision. It’s a hopeful sign that they recognize there are laws that they, like everyone else, must abide by.”
Recognizing that the law – especially Canada’s highest law of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms - must be respected is at the heart of the second cause for hope. It is the Nov. 1 ruling by the B.C. Court of Appeal quashing an attempt by the province’s lawyers to deny licensing to graduates of Trinity Western University’s proposed law school. Five justices unanimously agreed such a denial would be an unacceptable violation of the Charter, and would contravene decades of jurisprudence protecting religious freedom.
In practical terms, it means that Ontario is the only province where future Trinity law grads would technically be prevented from practicing by the governing association of lawyers. Earlier this year, Ontario’s appeal court upheld as “reasonable” the provincial law society's decision to deny Trinity grads licenses because of the Evangelical school’s community covenant for staff and students.
Lawyers I’ve spoken with say confidently even that bar is highly unlikely to withstand a Charter challenge from the first legal beagle to come out of TWU. Trinity Western has already signaled it will ask the Supreme Court to overturn the Ontario Appeal Court decision.
Ottawa lawyer André Schutten says the B.C. decision favoring Trinity so forcefully makes even that appeal seem unnecessary. Schutten argued before the appeal court on behalf of the Association for Reformed Political Action. He says that the ruling’s implications go far beyond whether there’ll be a faith-based law school in Canada in the near future.
“What [the Appeal Court] made clear is that the public interest is not just what the majority wants. The public interest is in doing what is right,” Schutten says. “I had a good feeling beforehand that we would win, but I wasn’t expecting to see a decision written in such powerful language.”
Schutten says the judgment’s language, combined with its insistence on doing what is right in the face of majoritarian arguments to the contrary, is an extremely positive sign for the protection of religious freedom rights and faith-based institutions.
Indeed, those who take time to read the B.C. Appeal Court decision in the Trinity Western case will find reason for even broader hope than just the wording of a single judgment. In its survey of Canadian legal rulings on questions of religious freedom, the Court sets out with significant detail just how fully the life of faith is protected in Canada against those who insist that a secular State necessitates a secular society. Against those secularist voices, our courts have said repeatedly and in many ways that a secular State has an obligation to foster religious diversity, not extinguish it.
Though they make seem small in isolation, events such as the Universities Canada membership seeing the light on its membership rules, or a B.C. court siding with Trinity Western University, are essential reminders that our world at least is not going due south in a handcart.