There’s a lot to talk about in Canadian politics right now — judging from this morning’s news feeds, the latest Rob Ford drama is already thoroughly-addressed, so I won’t bother to comment much on it here, other than to say I hope he gets sorted out while in rehab… and I genuinely doubt he will. That’s not me being cruel, it’s just that there’s no quick-fix, 30-day solution to the kind of demons he’s facing, and Rob Ford has never been one to admit wrongdoing… plus he’s surrounded by people who are happy to enable his self-destructive behaviour and shield him from the consequences. I expect that this is only going to be the latest of his on-the-wagon, off-the-wagon cycles. But I could be wrong — in fact, I hope I am.
No, what I want to talk about this morning is the gem I found buried beneath several Rob Ford stories on my local paper: Lift Ban on Trinity Western Grads: Del Mastro. And I could only shake my head.
Here’s the context: My Member of Parliament, who is currently on trial for electoral fraud and who resigned from the Conservative Party over that scandal, is sitting as an independent. Yesterday, independent MP Dean Del Mastro stood up on his hind legs in the House and delivered a speech condemning the decision by the Law Society of Upper Canada to deny legal accreditation to graduates of Trinity Western University’s new school of law. TWU is being denied because of their institutional policy requiring all students to sign a “covenant” condemning — among other things — any relationship which “violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” Failing to adhere to this “covenant” is grounds for expulsion from the institution. (I keep putting “covenant” in quotations because what it’s really just a Student Code of Conduct with a biblical-sounding name.)
The practical application of this policy is that LGBT people are not welcome at Trinity Western University. If an LGBT person does choose to attend TWU, they’d better not be caught acting on their sexual orientation.
As abhorrent as I find this policy, I have to concede that TWU is a privately-owned religious school, so they do have the right to maintain this discriminatory “covenant”… so long as TWU isn’t taking public money. A privately-funded, tax-paying organization can set its own internal policies. I don’t like it, but I concede that they have the legal right to do so.
However, the Law Society of Upper Canada (and the various other Law Societies across the country) regard TWU’s internal policies as discriminatory and inconsistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which specifically forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Law Society of Upper Canada has exercised its right to refuse legal accreditation to graduates of that private religious institution, based on the fact that TWU’s policies are contrary to Charter values. And since the Charter is the cornerstone of Canadian law (comparable to the US Constitution, for readers south of the border) that’s a non-trivial concern to the legal profession. Nobody — or at least nobody in authority — is saying that TWU should be shut down or even be forced to rescind this policy. They’re simply saying that until the policy is rescinded and brought into line with the values of Canada’s secular law, it is inappropriate to allow them to produce accredited lawyers.
The argument that TWU has some sort of “religious right” to discriminate, simply because their facility happens to be be founded by — and funded by — people of a particular sect of Christianity is not at all compelling to my mind. Does one have the right to hold a particular set of religious beliefs? Absolutely. Does one have the right to enforce (or to compel the State to enforce) the strictures of their beliefs on others? Absolutely not. Your private conscience is your own, it’s between you and your interpretation of the Divine, and that right of self-determination is protected by law.
As is my own.
My religious beliefs include the specific Divine injunction that “All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.” To me, that is the literal Divine Word on the subject. All acts of love and pleasure. All, not just the ones which don’t involve two dudes. By my religious belief, Trinity Western University is profoundly, deeply wrong in their so-called “covenant.”
You will note, however, that I am not advocating for any penalty upon them, nor that they should be forced to change their policies, nor even that they are doomed to some mythical afterlife of eternal torment under the watchful eye of a pitchfork enthusiast in red tights. Why? Because I understand that my right to freedom of religion is co-dependant on their right to freedom of religion. (I assume — I have faith — that the inherent flaws in their alleged morality will become apparent to them in the fullness of time… even if that time is shortly after they make their journey to the next world.)
What TWU is doing is with its “covenant” is requiring that anyone who wishes to access their services voluntarily relinquish their self-determination in favour of TWU’s vision. Since no public resources are involved TWU can technically do that. In my view, that’s immoral, but under the law it’s not illegal. And since they’re not contravening the law of the land, their morality (or absence of it) is in no wise the business of the State. But now TWU is demanding that the Law Societies of Canada, who can grant accreditation on behalf of the State, should sanction their so-called “covenant”… and the various Law Societies have rightly refused to do so unless and until TWU brings itself into line with the law of the land.
If you’re still having problems understanding why TWU is in the wrong, by the way, Canada’s leading political magazine, Macleans’, published an excellent article titled The False Debate over Trinity Western. In it, columnist Emma Teitel gives an illustrative hypothetical: if TWU’s “covenant” pertained not to “traditional” marriage but to the traditional role of women, i.e. requiring them to obey their husbands in all things and remain silent in church (which is something that certain evangelical Christian sects advocate) there wouldn’t even be a discussion on this issue. People would shake their heads and walk away, because in this country discrimination based on gender is (almost) universally recognized as wrong, just as discrimination based on race is recognized as wrong.
It amuses me, in a dark and bitter fashion, that the person who’s standing up in the House to defend TWU’s behaviour is himself under indictment for felony electoral fraud… and that he claims, on the basis of that allegedly fraudulent election, to represent his constituents (me, for example) in that defence, which I suspect is merely a cynical attempt to gain sympathy with the local right-wing/religious vote before the next election. Dean Del Mastro, in his current disgrace, certainly has no actual political clout on Parliament Hill, by the way: all he can do is tread water until his trial date and occasionally play to the local media; his “stand” is mere cheap political theatre and costs him nothing, because nobody who gives the slightest damn about LGBT rights was going to vote for him in the next election anyway.
It also amuses me, in an even darker and more bitter fashion, that these people who are advocating homophobic discrimination under the cloak of religion are now screaming about their rights are being trampled simply because they’re having to deal with the consequences of applying their repellant views on homosexuality. Well, tough shit: as a recent xkcd comic strip pointed out, “The right to free speech means the government can’t arrest you for what you say, it doesn’t mean that anyone else has to listen to your bullshit or host you while you say it.”
And in any case “I don’t think Jesus will like it” isn’t a terribly persuasive piece of jurisprudence.
Twenty years ago, TWU might have gotten away with homophobic discrimination. Fifty years ago it certainly would have done so. But society’s attitudes have changed and I would argue that we have a better understanding of morality than our ancestors did. For our ancestors, race, gender, and sexual orientation were all reasons to treat certain people as lesser. Women were inferior to men. People of colour were inferior to whites. And non-heterosexual people were inferior to everybody… so much so that it was a crime — and a serious crime — to be homosexual until very recently.
The essence of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is this: All people are equal, and characteristics that people are born with cannot be used as grounds to deny that equality. If you wish to participate in the public discourse of Canadian society, then you are required to conform to the Charter. Period. Participation in that discourse is, of course, purely voluntary: If you don’t like it, you can always move to Russia.