[Documents menu] Documents menu

A Fundamentalist Question

By Steven Pearlstein, Washington Post, Tuesday 25 April 2000; A20

LANGLEY, B.C. -- On this final day of classes, 600 students are jammed into the university gymnasium, rockin' to a truly awesome student band. They are dressed in the predictable range of jeans and cargo pants, T-shirts and baseball caps, with piercings and bleach-streaked hair. Couples near the back hold hands and nuzzle.

Only the words to the songs projected on the big screen--refrains about loving the Lord and finding "The Way"--reveal that this is Trinity Western University, where Christian students pledge not to engage in a long list of sins, including cheating, drinking, smoking, gambling, dancing and premarital or homosexual sex.

Now, Trinity Western is the focus of a closely watched court case in which the rights of fundamentalist Christians to espouse their beliefs are pitted against the rights of homosexuals to be protected from bigotry and discrimination.

At issue is a 1996 decision by the British Columbia College of Teachers denying Trinity Western's application--made nine years previously--to operate a fully accredited teaching program. The College of Teachers--a private, self-regulatory body controlled by the province's 50,000 certified schoolteachers--decided that Trinity Western's strictures against "homosexual behavior" discriminate against gays and lesbians, creating an "inappropriate environment" in which to train teachers for public schools with increasingly diverse student bodies.

Since that decision, however, two courts have ruled in favor of Trinity Western's programs, finding in effect that it is the College of Teachers, not Trinity Western, that may be the source of the greater intolerance. The Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to render a final decision in a case that many here liken to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1983 ruling that upheld an IRS decision to strip South Carolina's Bob Jones University of its tax-exempt status because of its ban on interracial dating.

If the Supreme Court sides with the College of Teachers, it could effectively bar religion-based universities in Canada from training all students seeking to become licensed professionals. It could also open the door for teacher certification boards to begin inquiring into the religious beliefs of individual teachers and applicants, civil liberty advocates say.

A victory for Trinity Western, on the other hand, would be a rare setback for Canada's sweeping human rights codes, which not only ban discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, nationality or sexual orientation, but also any speech deemed to be unduly critical of such groups.

In a country where highly subsidized public institutions issue nearly all university degrees, private Trinity Western is an anomaly--a small, liberal arts college that, with annual charges of $10,000 for tuition, room and board, is the most expensive private school in Canada. It is run by the Evangelical Free Church, founded by renegade Lutherans from Scandinavia who didn't like the government telling them what to believe--and still don't.

Compared to its many U.S. counterparts, Trinity Western practices a kinder, gentler brand of Christian orthodoxy. "We like to say we major in grace and minor in guilt," said Guy Safford, the university's vice president. Although the school does not ask students about their religion or sexual orientation, it requires all of them to sign a pledge forswearing a list of un-Christian activities.

In the Trinity Western cafeteria last week, an unscientific poll found agreement among students that homosexuals are sinners--but no more so than themselves. "The whole court case says we're gonna 'dis' homosexuals, but it's not like that," said Ryan Ellis, 21, a junior from Ottawa. "It's not as if any of us are any better. And if any Christian was to say otherwise, they'd be totally wrong. We're not about judging people here."

"In the Bible, Jesus was living among prostitutes, so why should we shun homosexuals?" asked Jane Wong, 18, from Delta, B.C. "Maybe we could help them."

Most of Trinity Western's students acknowledge they have few, if any, gay friends or acquaintances. Most come from devoutly Christian homes, and seem happy to be in an environment where their faith is not ridiculed, or even unusual.

What galls the students, however, is that so many people equate their faith with homophobia. Michele Howard, 20, of Fortuna, Calif., said she transferred to Trinity Western from the University of Oregon to deepen her faith and escape a social milieu dominated by drunken fraternity parties. At Oregon, Howard said, she witnessed gay bashing, adding: "I can assure you it wasn't the Christian students who were doing it."

"It disgusts me, the walls put up between the gay and the Christian communities," said Jennifer Widbeck, 23, an education major from Mississauga, Ontario, who blames dogmatists on both sides for the rift. "I may not agree with the behavior they practice, but I still love them."

On campus, the school's battle is seen as much political as legal. University officials suspect that the province, known for its socialist policies, powerful public employee unions and weak churches, is intent on marginalizing an institution that is private, non-union and Christian.

Registrar Douglas Smart, the Teachers College's top official, denies there is any such agenda. For Smart and his colleagues, the logic is simple: Any school that condemns homosexuality as a sin is discriminatory and should not receive a "stamp of approval" from a quasi-public agency. In addition, the college argues that the "world view" embraced by Trinity Western means that its graduates would not have the necessary sensitivity and professionalism to deal with homosexual students, parents and issues as teachers in public schools.

The British Columbia Court of Appeals, however, disagreed. In its 2 to 1 decision, it said it was "unreasonable" for the college to assume that Trinity Western graduates would be any less likely than anyone else to set aside their own views in dealing professionally with students, parents and other teachers. The court noted that the college had received not a single complaint of intolerance about any of the several hundred Trinity Western graduates now teaching after earning certificates in one-year programs at one of the province's public universities.

Lawyers for religious groups and civil liberties organizations argue that the issue goes well beyond Trinity Western. If the Teachers College's position is upheld, they warn, it could open the door for certification boards nationwide to deny teaching licenses on the basis of a person's religious or moral beliefs.

"These days, there's a dictatorship of the progressive left that, at times, is no more tolerant than the old right-wing establishment," said Craig Jones, president of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. y Trinity Western graduate Julia Bryant-Taneda, a high school English and psychology teacher, said she had to overcome an initial prejudice among colleagues who thought she would cross the line from teacher to preacher. But now, she said, her students routinely seek her out for counseling on how to handle parents or friends who are uncomfortable with the fact that they may be gay.

"They know I'm Christian, but it's clear to them I put them first," said Bryant-Taneda.

Because she wrote her master's thesis on the tension between the gay and Christian communities, Bryant-Taneda is invited to return to Trinity each spring to conduct a required class for education majors on how to deal with issues of sexuality in the classroom. For some students, she said, it's a challenging session, either because of their strong beliefs or because a few may be gay themselves. But she said she has no doubt Trinity Western-trained teachers would act as professionally as any others.

"When I have a student who comes to me--and this happened--and says he's finally found a boyfriend, I'm happy for him," she said. "I'm happy he's happy; that's it. It's his life."