In what has been described as "the most important decision on religious freedom in years," the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that a private Christian university has the right to train teachers for public-school classrooms despite its belief that homosexual behavior constitutes sin.
The court rejected Thursday the British Columbia College of Teachers (BCCT) argument that Trinity Western University-trained teachers are unfit to teach in public schools because they accept a code of conduct that threatens to stigmatize homosexual students.
TWU students must adhere to "community standards" that prohibit pre-marital sex and homosexual activity.
In an 8-1 decision, the court distinguished between belief and action.
It noted that there is no evidence that hundreds of TWU-trained teachers who, until now, have been required to complete their education at a publicly funded university, have discriminated against homosexual students.
However, it pointed out that if Christian teachers do discriminate, they can face disciplinary action.
At the same time, the court said that the College of Teachers had failed to balance the rights of homosexual students with those of the Christian teachers.
Freedom of religion
"is not accommodated if the consequence of its exercise is the denial of the full participation of society," the justices concluded.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which, with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, intervened on behalf of TWU, said the case shows how two important civil-libertarian principles-sexual equality and freedom of belief-can co-exist.
"The nature of social life is that freedoms collide," said executive director Murray Mollard. "This is a great case for trying to reconcile constitutionally protected rights."
In welcoming the decision, Trinity Western vice-principal Guy Safford said: "The Supreme court of Canada has affirmed that, in our multi-cultural and multi-faith society, people cannot be arbitrarily penalized or barred from participating in public life simply because they hold religious views."
He noted that the Supreme Court wrote: "There is nothing in TWU's Community Standards that indicates that graduates of TWU will not treat homosexuals fairly and respectfully." Indeed, Mollard pointed out that the university has an exemplary record.
Canada's Catholic bishops said the ruling "reinforces the understanding that genuine pluralism makes room for a variety of beliefs from a variety of sources, and that in a truly free society there is freedom of, but not freedom from, religion."
A spokeswoman for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, representing 200 denominations, called it "the most important decision on religious freedom in years."
In written remarks, the lone dissenter, Justice Claire L'Heureux-Dube, decried TWU's position that you can "love the sinner, but condemn the sin." Indeed, a spokesman for the national homosexual rights group EGALE feared that the decision could ultimately harm homosexual students.
College of Teachers registrar Doug Smart said he will work with the university in Langley, B.C., just outside Vancouver, which will begin graduating public-school teachers in 2002.
The case marks the conclusion of a dispute that began in 1996 when the BCCT refused to approve TWU's teaching program. Trinity Western, with 2,850 liberal arts and science students, is affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of Canada.
- Alison Applebe, CNSNews Correspondent