The Morals of Canada's Teachers ; Supreme Court Case Puts a Conservative Christian University's Stand on Homosexuality on Trial

Article excerpt

Every one of the 2,850 students at this private Christian university located on a quiet, almost rural, campus is asked to sign a code of conduct. That code includes no smoking, no premarital sex, no gambling, no cheating, no pornography, and no homosexual behavior.

Those prohibitions are not unusual at many conservative Christian schools. But the last part, about homosexuality, has landed Trinity Western University in Canada's Supreme Court.

In the United States, there's an enduring tension between religion and education. Now Canada awaits a decision from its highest court on whether the religious beliefs behind the Trinity code render graduates of the university unfit to teach in secular public schools. The court's decision could affect any student with religious training seeking to become a licensed professional.

In 1996 the British Columbia College of Teachers, the agency that accredits teacher training programs in this province, refused to accredit Trinity. The agency says that Trinity grads, as teachers, might be intolerant of gay students in their classrooms.

"It's the first case that squarely raises the need to balance the equality claims of the [religious] fundamentalists and the equality claims of gays and lesbians," says Toronto lawyer Andrew Lokan, representing the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which has intervened in the case, straddling both sides of the issue.

Says Guy Saffold, executive vice president of Trinity, "We've summarized the case this way: Can regulatory bodies deny a public benefit based on our... 'belief systems'?" Certification of its teacher education program, Mr. Saffold explains, is a "public benefit."

Private institutions play only a small role in Canadian higher education. But Trinity's case is fraught with implications for the role that people of faith - or of any worldview outside the mainstream - may play in public life here.

This case is in part about whether a "quasigovernmental tribunal" like the accreditation agency has authority to consider issues not only of technical competence but of human rights and constitutional freedoms. If the agency prevails, Saffold suggests, this could open the door for all manner of regulatory bodies, as distinct from courts, to judge the constitutional validity of different groups' belief systems - perhaps holding up a building permit or a business license over a theological issue.

"This case has tremendous implications for religious freedom," says William Sammon, an Ottawa attorney representing the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has intervened in the case. He notes that traditional Catholic moral teaching is quite similar to the standards embraced at Trinity.

"We made the argument that [denying accreditation] would tend to marginalize Catholic school students. They would be denied full access to public life until their religious views had been diluted or nullified. …