Trinity Western University is back in the news in its continuing battle to establish a law school — with graduates recognized by law societies across the country.
Bob Kuhn, president of Trinity Western University (TWU) in Langley, B.C., spoke to Faith Today about freedom of religion, what TWU’s students think about the controversy rocking their school and the personal nature of the attacks and where he believes Canada is heading.
TWU’s proposal for a school of law, although approved by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, has ignited debate in Canada over topics like discrimination, a school’s right to have students sign a community covenant, and of course, religious freedom. The Council of Canadian Law Deans has spoken out against TWU’s plans for a law school.
FT: Were you surprised at the outcry from the law deans?
BK: The answer is yes and no. I’m surprised it’s become the issue it has. My surprise is really the degree to which the opposition is grounding its positions on an ideology, as opposed to taking into account some of the legal and logical perspectives.
FT: Listening to some of the comments made by the opposing side, I’m thinking it must be frustrating to be labelled the way you and TWU seem to be. How do you deal with it personally?
BK: It’s been challenging at times because of the nature of it being a personal attack, in part. Certainly some of the commentary has been to use the language of the day – “intolerant” and worse. I’ve received personal threats and the like. I would characterize it as hate mail. The challenge is you can’t respond in sound bites and make it a meaningful discussion point.
Those people who find it easy to respond with a sound bite mentality tend to gather the attention of others, but don’t tend to generate much in the way of reasoned dialogue. Much of our opposition is not interested in reasoned dialogue. They are interested in ideological purity.
FT: You’ve been publicly labelled homophobic, intolerant and closed minded.
BK: And bigoted. Admittedly, sometimes it feels a bit lonely. It’s not hard to identify the fact that a lot of people do not want to stick their head up for fear of getting it shot off. I recognize that.
Some lawyers who may have made submissions to the different law societies say they can’t really do that because their firms might be critical, or it might damage relationships with clients or partners.
You have to come to realize that you may have to represent people who may feel they can’t use their voice. On the other hand, I’ve had tremendous support from people I haven’t even met who say they are praying for us daily and for our school.
My job is to represent the school. The school has a leadership role in this that we need to maintain. Even in the evangelical Christian community there is a great diversity of opinion on this issue, mainly because I don’t think it has been thought through and taught about.
FT: You recently spoke before the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, which was holding hearings to determine whether it should recognize degrees from TWU. How was that?
BK: I was pleased that the meeting took place and that we were allowed to make oral submission. I think generally the dialogue went well. I didn’t feel that anyone was not willing to have a reasoned discussion at the meeting.
FT: Where is the TWU student body on this issue?
BK: I think there’s a broad diversity of views, which is in some respects healthy, in others reflects a lack of real understanding as to what is at issue here, what the arguments are for and against a particular position like that one set out in our community covenant. We are not a homogeneous community. It generates a lot of discussions, which we’ve had, on the issues of sexual ethics, sexuality and gender identification issues. We’ve done as best we can I think to educate in an open, broad, academic freedom context without constraining the discussion. That’s led to some pretty interesting points of view – some reflected through students we’ve had who are gay or lesbian. It’s been worthwhile to have these discussions.
FT: One does wonder why a student from the LGBT community would want to attend TWU.
BK: Just because there’s an LGBT community member that has an affinity with the Christian environment, that doesn’t mean they’d agree with our perspective. It would be unusual under the current social values context or worldview for a married same-sex couple to want to come to TWU. I think that would be unusual, but not unheard of.
FT: This discussion gets framed as a standoff between religious freedom and the right to not be discriminated against based on sexuality. Is that what this is?
BK: Section 2A of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms identifies the fundamental freedom of conscience and religion, which in my view is called up in a significant way in this case, as it was in the B.C. teacher decision. [A 2001 Supreme Court ruling found in favour of TWU’s application for a school of education in a similar debate.]
It’s an interface of two apparently conflicting perspectives. Is there discrimination against same-sex married couples? The position taken by Trinity Western – is this a question of religious freedom and therefore discrimination against those with religious views on same-sex marriage? That is the very narrowest view of this. The opposition would argue that we don’t have any rights outside of our community. Once we venture into public forum, we have to comply with all publicly identified rules, if you will. Including treating people who are married but in civil context as if there were not a religious position in relation to that particular status.
FT: It seems pretty clear, but where do you think Canada is heading on these issues?
BK: In my view there is no question that we are becoming a secular humanist environment in every conceivable way. Secular humanism has become a type of religion that tolerates no alternative.
It is broad, inclusive in some sense, but very exclusive in others. If you have a religious view that is not part of the secular norm, especially an evangelical perspective, especially on social issues such as homosexuality, there is no question that it is becoming a problem to maintain those views and to be tolerated.
I think there’s a key indicator in this, if you read the 2001 decision [Supreme Court decision finding in favour of TWU’s right to have a school of education], and say, “How can anyone read that decision and not apply it to the current fact pattern?”
That decision was made 13 years ago. In 13 years people have come to the conclusion ‘that was then and this is now.’
To me, that speaks volumes that the discussion on Charter rights could generate a completely different conclusion in the minds of some people we assume are thinking the issues through. In many respects it doesn’t have liberality to it. It has a restrictive nature.
A very interesting book I’ve been reading, Is God Intolerant? Christian Thinking About the Call for Tolerance by Daniel Taylor, deals very well with the language we are using. Words like “tolerant” and “discrimination” mean very different things than how we use them.
The opposition to the law school is framing TWU’s position as being intolerant without recognizing its own intolerance. It becomes a nomenclature problem, a definitional problem. The term “bigot” is thrown about with abandon, the same as “discrimination.”
We’ve defined discrimination in terms so broad, it becomes a mantra.
FT: Why should the average Canadian care about this case?
BK: I think it has huge significance for religious freedom in a country heading in the opposite direction. The general trend of secular thinking means that understanding and appreciation of religion of any kind is probably at its lowest in modern history.
We have increased secularism to the point that religion must be confined to something you can believe in and espouse in very carefully chosen terms. Beyond that you face regulation and limitation of rights that we would have considered very strange 25 years ago.
There are so many indicators that suggest that this case, if it is found against TWU in a courtroom, indicates a trend that religious folks need not apply because your personal religious views, once expressed in a public environment, become a grounds for disqualification.
If TWU can’t have its law school, there is only one reason that has been identified as having any merit in the public eye – because it has a differing view than secular society regarding the issue of same sex-marriage.
FT: The nature of pluralism seems to be up for debate.
BK: You used to be able to talk about biblical terminology with some common level of understanding in Canada. These days the whole area of religion is barely discussed and not understood by most. Most people don’t understand the critical nature of religious freedom in the country. They are prepared to jettison Christianity and other religions they may find adverse to the secularism that prevails. Anyone who stands up for any issue opposed to secularism is anathema to secularism.
The opposition’s perspective is that because of these six words [in the Community Covenant] TWU has no place to play in a pluralistic society – which defies both the definition and intent of pluralism. We’re all for pluralism as long as everyone agrees.
It relies on a perverse definition set out in sound bites and accepted by the Canadian public as if it were the only position logically and reasonably available. It’s a shame, really.
FT: Thank you, Bob.