Mar 08, 2018 by Chris Selly – Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C
LANGLEY, B.C., and OTTAWA — On a soaking Wednesday evening last fall, about 45 minutes east of Vancouver, 40 student teachers gathered for a formal debate on SOGI 123, a controversial sexual orientation and gender identity curriculum proposed for British Columbia.
The topic was the students’ choice, says professor Allyson Jule — a practical one, perhaps, since some of them might soon face arguments for and against it at parent-teacher nights. And whatever their personal beliefs, the students behaved like … well, like teachers, applauding each parry and thrust of the debate with wholesome encouragement.
The students assigned to the No side repudiated the most extreme positions expressed in the province in recent months: that homosexuality is a choice, as a Langley parent suggested at a school district meeting in June; or that tolerating children’s alternative gender expressions amounts to abuse, as a Chilliwack school trustee complained in October (later apologizing).
Instead, they appealed to the value of ideological diversity over “indoctrination,” and to teachers’ professional expertise and judgment in leading their classrooms.
The Yes side countered that SOGI 123 does, in fact, rely on teachers’ expertise to craft lesson plans appropriate to their classes. And they made arguments familiar to anyone following the sex-ed wars: that high rates of bullying reported by LGBTQ youth, both unacceptable on their face and bad for educational outcomes, have been improved by such curricula.
In theory, this could have been any university debate. But these were teachers in training at Trinity Western University, so the Yes side also appealed directly to what makes the school special — or problematic, if you prefer.
“The Bible calls for us to care for the marginalized, and for those who are unable to look out for themselves,” they argued. “And while we are not saying (you should) throw your theological beliefs out the window, our public education system needs to reflect the culture that it is in.”
Students here are well aware, however, that balancing private faith and public work is no simple matter.
When Trinity, a private evangelical Christian institution, first proposed a faculty of education in 2000, the B.C. College of Teachers rejected its application: It argued that the university’s community covenant, which prohibits “sexual intimacy” outside of marriage between a man and a woman, impugned graduates’ qualifications to teach in the real world.
The following year the Supreme Court overturned that decision. Trinity’s faculty of education has since graduated more than 400 teachers.
Nonetheless, the community covenant is once again a matter for the country’s top judges — this time because of the university’s proposed law program. The law societies of both B.C. and Ontario have refused to accredit any future grads, arguing that Trinity’s governing values are in direct conflict with the Charter of Rights that lawyers are expected to uphold.
Final arguments were made in Ottawa late last year, and a ruling is expected in late spring or early summer. Whether an education degree is fundamentally different from a law degree, and a college of teachers from a law society, is a key disagreement between TWU (which says it isn’t) and its opponents (which mostly say it is).
But the Supreme Court’s decision could have ramifications far beyond Trinity. The law societies’ objections are of a piece with the federal Liberal government’s insistence that groups receiving summer job funding support the Charter of Rights, including a supposed right to abortion on demand.
“The very nature of religion in public life” is at stake, says Ray Pennings, executive vice-president of the Christian think tank Cardus — whether it’s “something totally personal (and) private,” or something that has at least some entrйe into the “public space.” A ruling against Trinity would have “consequences for everyone in society,” he argues.
If a privately funded university can run afoul of the Charter, for one thing, what does that mean for publicly funded religious schools? Canadians of all faiths, and none, routinely receive care from government-funded religious hospitals and social service agencies. Is that now up for debate?
There was a certain irony in seeing the debate on SOGI 123 at Trinity, a university that’s often depicted as tolerating only one view of society. I suspect there are modern, supposedly freer-thinking Canadian campuses where such a discussion could never happen, the Yes side being so monolithically supported.
But it’s not clear how much weight the reality of campus life at Trinity, as opposed to its official policies and popular perception, will carry as the courts consider its future ambitions.