Frequently Asked Questions
Updated: July 8, 2014
Why does TWU want a law school?
Trinity Western University develops positive, goal-oriented, Christian leaders who, wherever they go, want to serve others by making life better for them. A law school is a wonderful opportunity to continue and extend that mission. With spiritual and character formation at the forefront of a TWU education, the TWU School of Law will develop highly competent, professional graduates who are ready to serve in all areas of society—with a particular emphasis on providing needed legal services to the less privileged of Canadian society. Creating a TWU School of Law is the next natural step for the University and our mission to develop godly Christian leaders for the marketplaces of life.
Despite years of planning, consultation, and development of our proposed law school, the controversy we’ve faced since seeking approvals has been unprecedented. It has become apparent that there is more at stake than a law school. While Canada is a pluralistic, diverse, and tolerant nation, the opposition questions whether there is room here for an evangelical Christian university with an excellent reputation.
What is a “faith-based” law school?
A great deal of our western legal system is based on Judeo-Christian values and principles—from a moral code that condemns theft and murder to ethical standards that have guided civilization. We see the opportunity to connect those ethics and values to our students’ Christian beliefs as a very positive way to reinforce both their faith and their professional standards as lawyers. We also foresee a unique opportunity for our students to examine the connection between other world religions and the evolution of legal systems within those jurisdictions. As with any field of study, it’s always a worthwhile exercise to examine and learn from what’s being done elsewhere. Canadian law schools tend to focus solely on Canadian law, and we feel the Canadian legal system as a whole can benefit from a more global, faith-based approach to legal education. So, too, can lawyers.
What is all the controversy about?
A Although approved by the BC Ministry of Advanced Education and the Federation of Law Societies of Canada,TWU’s plans to establish a law school were still met with opposition. This is primarily because our Community Covenant asks students to “voluntarily abstain from sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” All students, staff, and faculty at TWU agree to abide by the Covenant, which includes a wide variety of guidelines for life as a member of our Christ-centred community. Some groups and individuals are calling for TWU to alter, or get rid of, the Community Covenant, but it is an important document that helps define our community as an evangelical Christian university.
Other groups, such as the BC Civil Liberties Association, the Archdiocese of Vancouver, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and several denominations, including the Evangelical Free Churches of Canada and America, support TWU’s right to maintain the Community Covenant, including the references to the traditional definition of marriage.
Now, the law societies in two provinces have voted to bar Trinity Western law school graduates from practicing there—not on the basis of merit, but because of Trinity Western’s traditional Christian views on marriage. Some opponents express the fear that TWU graduates will discriminate against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in their professional careers—despite the Supreme Court of Canada finding that there “wasn’t a shred of evidence” of any discrimination when the same issue went before them in consideration of our ability to educate prospective teachers in 2001.
Why does TWU have a community covenant?
￼Our University is purposefully different. We are, after all, an evangelical Christian university. As Christians, we’re taught to try to live our lives in accordance with an established set of behaviours that point to a Christian way of life. These include acting with integrity, living an honest life, and treating others with dignity and respect at all times.
We also ask members of our community to develop healthy living habits; to have a positive regard for the well-being of others and to avoid swearing or the use of profane language; to refrain from harassment and all forms of dishonesty, including cheating and stealing; and to avoid gambling or the viewing of pornography. We ask a lot of our students, but coming to TWU is a choice they make freely.
We believe it’s important to cultivate our students’ character to prepare them for life. We also believe that our Community Covenant has been integral to our reputational success as a university. We don’t have the extent of problems that many universities are dealing with in terms of substance abuse and sexual assaults.
The Community Covenant helps define the core religious values of our community. And through the application of our core values, our community has been infused with a loving, grace-oriented spirit that has helped to positively transform the lives of countless students.
Why does the University try to dictate the behaviour of its students?
We don’t dictate anyone’s behaviour. The Community Covenant reflects the religious beliefs of the religious community in Canada that we serve. Ours is but one of many universities in Canada. Students choose TWU and have many other academic options available to them if they feel TWU and its community values are not right for them.
Many world-renowned universities have religious affiliations, along with defined codes of behaviour to encourage academic and personal integrity. But aside from universities, most communities enact standards of behaviour. If you join the military, for example, you must obey a chain of command. If you’re a man entering a synagogue, you are required to cover your head. And if you attend a spiritual retreat in India, you might be required to remain silent, or observe a strictly vegetarian diet.
Our beliefs point to the larger experience of a segment of Canadian society. There are millions of Canadian employees, students, and congregants who adhere to these principles, and others like them, for daily living. Many of them are members of the evangelical Christian community that we serve.
Why don’t you just remove the words “between a man and a woman,” from the Community Covenant?
Our Community Covenant is not intended to reflect popular opinion. If we allow our identity to be defined by external sources, we lose our ability to define ourselves as a community that strives to embody the pattern of servant leadership exemplified by Jesus Christ. This issue is not just about our views on marriage, but about whether there is room in a secular humanist society to hold divergent views.
The Community Covenant reflects the sincerely-held religious beliefs of our community and constitutes a behavioural standard with which all students, staff, and faculty agree to comply. Without the ability to define acceptable behaviour within the community, we lose the learning environment that reflects the wider religious community that we serve and that has earned Trinity Western its excellent reputation.
Each person who becomes part of a community chooses to abide by its standards. Our community is intended to be made up of people pursuing a godly Christian life while living out their values through their vocational and educational pursuits. In essence, TWU without a community covenant would no longer be the TWU that we know. It would lose its evangelical Christian distinctiveness.
Religion aside, does TWU have a legal right to keep the traditional biblical definition of marriage in its Community Covenant?
A TWU continues to operate under British Columbia’s Trinity Western University Act and charter mandate to provide “university education in the arts and sciences with an underlying philosophy and viewpoint that is Christian.”
In 2005, the Civil Marriage Act was passed, recognizing same-sex marriage in Canada. Importantly, it also makes special provision for people of all different faiths to maintain a traditional religious definition of marriage without being penalized or deprived of any benefits otherwise available in society.
Also, in 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada dealt conclusively with the question of whether or not TWU’s Community Covenant was lawful— an 8-1 decision in favour of Trinity Western. The Court ruled that TWU students have a right to be educated in the environment characterized by the Community Covenant, and noted that TWU contributes to the diversity of university education in Canada. In doing so, the court ruled Trinity Western was entitled to the equal benefit of the law without discrimination.
The Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in favour of TWU occurred way back in 2001. Haven’t things changed over the past 13 years?
It’s true that Canadians have become more accepting of same-sex marriage. It’s also true that the Civil Marriage Act protects the right of people of faith to maintain a traditional religious definition of marriage. Popular opinion should not override minority rights. In fact, minorities need protection from the dominance of popular opinion.
The Supreme Court decision from 2001 still stands; it recognized that the appropriate balancing of rights allows TWU to maintain its beliefs and the Community Covenant. We are confident that any future court decision will follow it.
We believe that what was true in 2001 for our education graduates remains true today for our graduates from all of our Schools and Faculties—and for our future law graduates. Our alumni continue to distinguish themselves in the marketplace, and are evidence of the kind of community that exists here at TWU.
Does the Community Covenant ban gay students from attending TWU? ￼￼
Anyone is welcome to attend TWU, regardless of their sexual orientation or religious beliefs. LBGT students have attended—and graduated—from our University, as have students from many different faiths and ethnicities. But, like all students, they agree to be educated in an environment that promotes traditional, biblical Christian values and principles as set out in our Community Covenant, which means they should honour and respect them during their time as TWU students.
The sanctity of Christian marriage between a man and a woman is fundamentally important to us as evangelical Christians. It relates to important religious teachings about creation and Christ’s relationship with his Church. Therefore, we ask all members of our community to respect our traditional biblical interpretation that God intended sexual intimacy only between a man and a woman who are married to each other. Anyone who agrees to participate in our community within the parameters outlined by our Community Covenant is welcome at TWU.
Why shouldn’t gay couples be able to have sexual relations while attending TWU?
￼As those who join an expressly religious community and who are trying to affirm a faithful evangelical Christian perspective in their life and practice, members of the TWU community are asked to live in conformity with biblical principles. Traditional Christian interpretations of the Bible teach that identity is not merely a physical or sexual matter, but that as Christians, “who we are” is found in Jesus Christ.
While we recognize that there are differing opinions on the matter, we understand the Bible to teach that intimate sexual activity is reserved for a man and a woman together within the bounds of marriage, which pictures the relationship of Christ to his church.
We appreciate that many people outside of our community will not affirm this approach and that many will have difficulty understanding it. However, becoming a part of our community is a personal choice. We are simply asking those who choose to be members of the TWU community to affirm a lifestyle that is consistent with the religious ethics that make our community what it is. At the same time, we make every attempt to love and value all those who would choose differently.
So “extramarital” sexual relations between an unmarried couple whether gay or straight is unacceptable. But what about legally married same-sex couples?
Civil same-sex marriages are now recognized by Canadian law for secular purposes. But religious views on same-sex marriage differ widely, and legal changes cannot dictate religious belief. Many religions—including many Christian denominations, and traditional Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews—have chosen not to bless same-sex unions. They have official church policies, based upon their traditional religious teachings, defining marriage as being only between a man and a woman. We share those views and believe Canada has made room for a diversity of beliefs on this issue. The legislation legalizing same-sex marriages in Canada, the Civil Marriage Act , section 3.1, specifically protects religious persons and organizations from being penalized for retaining their traditional definition of marriage.
Given the need for students to abide by the Community Covenant, what happens if a gay couple at the University engages in sexual relations?
The Community Covenant is primarily based on the integrity of the person signing it. We believe that people choosing to attend TWU do so because they wish to be part of an evangelical Christian educational community. We don’t aggressively police compliance on this, or any other Community Covenant expectation—nor has any student been expelled from the University for failing to abide by TWU’s sexual relations standards. But we do make it clear to prospective students, staff, and faculty that if, as a matter of personal integrity, they can’t or won’t accept our common religious standards, we invite them to seek one of many other living/learning situations that would be more acceptable to them.
In cases where a student has struggled with the commitment made under the Community Covenant, we come alongside to determine the nature of their difficulty; we then try to work with them to find ways to help them. We take a prayerful, relational approach in each circumstance.
So you expect gay students to ignore their natural instincts and remain chaste the entire time they attend your university?
We expect any student—gay or heterosexual—to honour the traditional, Bible-based Christian standards that guide us as a community. While that may demand a high level of self-discipline for unmarried students, we believe (as do members of most other world religions) that sexual promiscuity (in any form) is unhealthy—to both the individuals involved and the community at large. Prospective students are well-aware of that—and gay or straight, they have the option to go elsewhere if the prospect of honouring those standards would be too rigorous for them. Having said that, we are also a highly forgiving community. We are not saints—and no one among us can claim perfect adherence to these principles. Our goal is to achieve spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.
Still, aren’t your Christian values disparaging of the gay community? ￼
Absolutely not. Our University prides itself on open dialogue and critical examination of beliefs and values. Further, our Christian values are founded on love and respect for others. So while some of our beliefs about what behaviour is most in keeping with God’s plan for us may differ from those held in the broader community, we are taught to love and respect all people, regardless of their race, religion, or sexual orientation.
In fact, it would be inconsistent with the Community Covenant to do otherwise. When it comes to living out our values, Trinity Western students routinely volunteer to assist low-income residents in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside; build houses with Habitat for Humanity; support health clinics in developing countries; and many of our students, faculty, and staff members have performed needed mission and humanitarian work around the globe in schools, hospitals, shelters, and churches.
As a university, wouldn’t a statement of your beliefs and values suffice to define your identity?
At TWU, faith is not something practiced on Sundays—it is lived out through the belief in a living God who exemplifies how we are to live together all day, every day. We believe that holding a belief, and acting on one’s beliefs, is one in the same, and our Community Covenant reflects that. Jesus clearly taught that if we love Him, we will obey His commandments. We propose to add to the rich landscape of higher education in Canada by establishing the first faith-based school of law. Trinity Western offers a unique Christian living/learning situation where spiritual and character formation are at its foundation.
What about the allegations of discrimination against the LGBT community?
While decades ago, a covenant limiting sex to be experienced within heterosexual marriage would probably have been considered unremarkable, today it strikes many Canadians as out of date and even offensively restrictive. But should that give society the right to effectively ban those who subscribe to that traditional definition from full participation in Canadian society? On the contrary, it should alert us to the fact that those who hold this currently unpopular view are a minority whose rights need to be protected. The courts recognized that fact when it passed the Civil Marriage Act. In Section 3.1 of that Act, it gave Canadians the right to hold their own traditional, faith-based views on marriage while ensuring this minority maintains the freedom to fully participate in Canadian society.
Our Canadian constitution and human rights laws actually protect the ability of religious people to establish communities based on their common faith. A truly healthy and compassionate society will be wise enough not to let the application of constitutional freedoms be decided by majority rule. The truly healthy and compassionate society errs heavily on the side of freedom as a principle, so that prevailing ideologies don’t become the deciding factor between a Canadian being able to express herself and a Canadian having to suppress her thoughts or religious beliefs.
But doesn’t adherence to Trinity Western’s Community Covenant effectively limit the opportunities for gay students to apply for and be accepted into Canadian law schools?
Again, anyone is welcome to attend Trinity Western University. Their sexual orientation is never a consideration. Further, there are many well-established law schools across the country—so prospective law students have many options to choose from. Those options don’t currently exist, however, for law students interested in a “faith-based” law school education. Faith-based law schools have long been established in the United States and other parts of the world, but do not exist in Canada. We would like to address that need in building a faith-based, ethically-driven, privately-funded Canadian law school.
Does Trinity Western University receive public funding?
As a private university, TWU does not receive public funding for its operations. However, there are two instances where TWU has received government financial support. First, the federal government is the largest source for research funding in the country. TWU’s faculty, like faculty at all universities in Canada, compete for research grants through the processes established by the various funding agencies. It is a small but important part of our budget and helps us raise the profile of TWU within the academic community in Canada. Second, back during the last recession, the federal government made available one-time funds under its Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP) to help stimulate the economy. TWU successfully applied for and received some funds at that time.
Why should Canadians care about the TWU School of Law controversy?
It’s been said that if we ban Christian lawyers then we should ban all lawyers—Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims—whose world views diverge from the secular humanism world views prevailing in society today. The TWU School of Law controversy has come to represent a crossroads in Canadian public life. It asks: is one truly free to hold a divergent view in a secular humanist society?
The freedom to believe and to act upon those beliefs is at the core of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As Canadians, we should care about this issue because it involves upholding the rights and freedoms of minorities, and a just society protects the rights of religious minorities.