Powerful, faceless bureaucrats attack religious freedom of faith-based universities in Canada

September 25, 2016
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By Lea Z. Singh |

It's open season on Christian universities in Canada. First the legal eagles of three provinces attacked with a triple left hook, declaring that their ranks would stay closed to graduates of Trinity Western University Law School. The reason: many top lawyers (yes, the same people tasked with defending our religious freedom) can’t handle the fact that Evangelical Christians do not approve of same-sex marriage.

Following up, Universities Canada is now headed for a knockout punch, hoping to pin down all faith-based universities until they either squirm away from their faith or die a quiet death. This latest move displays a disturbing intolerance, now morphing into aggressive hostility, towards Canada’s Christians.

Let’s take a close look at this new attack by Universities Canada. Many Canadians may not be familiar with this pseudo-governmental organization, which functions on a bureaucratic level above universities. But UC is very similar to a law society or a physicians’ college, because UC membership is synonymous with accreditation. Nearly all Canadian universities are members of UC, and naturally, membership opens many doors.

For one thing, UC members get access to millions of government dollars in grants and scholarships, which can be used to recruit top talent, including athletes. Nonmembers have to cough up their own scholarship funding, but it’s hard to match the deep pockets of Universities Canada.

Second, the degrees granted by UC members are presumed legitimate by other universities, so their graduates can fluidly move from school to school without any trouble. Nonmembers may have a tougher time convincing other universities that their degrees pass muster. So if you graduate from a school that is not a UC member, it may be more challenging to get into masters and doctorate programs elsewhere.

Like the Godfather, Universities Canada has the power. And like the Godfather, UC is starting to misuse it. Their new attack is not a sudden move. Rather, UC has apparently been chewing on its strategy for a very long time, trying to find just the right way to deliver that below-the-belt punch. It had to be subtle enough to seem completely innocent, yet powerful enough to knock Christian universities clear out of the ring.

Over the summer, UC finally unveiled its genius strategy. It boils down to just a little proposal, which starts with a tweak in a bylaw about membership criteria. This seems innocuous, and just to make doubly sure, the bylaw is veiled in legalese two feet thick, so that ordinary people will either fail to understand its significance or glaze over if they give it more thought.

Lost in a 50-word draft sentence, the bomb is hidden in a tiny phrase: “religious beliefs”. With that phrase, Universities Canada is trying to shrink the religious freedom of Christian universities so that they won’t be able to practice their faith.

Here’s how they’re doing it. In Canada, human rights legislation protects the rights of individuals and communities to both believe a religion and also practice it. After all, real freedom would seem to include not just thinking religious thoughts, but also acting them out. To this end, human rights law uses the blanket term “religion” to include both our faith and its exercise.

But UC has chosen not to use the accepted term “religion”. This is totally intentional. They are narrowing it to “religious beliefs”, because this kicks out the whole idea of faith-based conduct. UC members must now promise to treat all staff and students equally based on their “religious beliefs”, without regard for whether they actually put their faith into practice.

Then, in a brilliant but evil check mate, a second new UC policy prevents member universities from taking advantage of their actual legal rights.

Under our laws, faith-based universities can hire and fire employees in a way that maintains and protects their identity. This is because our elected leaders have made a special exemption to human rights laws, specifically for universities (and cultural groups). So for example, a private Catholic university can refuse to hire someone who is nominally Catholic, but who is living his or her life in flagrant violation of the Catholic Church’s central teachings. This makes sense, because otherwise the university would easily be overrun by teachers who don’t practice the faith that they are supposed to teach. The whole mission of the university would be jeopardized.

But UC’s new policy requires all members to give up their legal right to use this exemption in hiring. It wants members to promise that they: "will not use any exemptions for bona fide occupational requirements in an employment relationship to discriminate based on Protected Grounds, whether or not such exemptions would otherwise be permitted under Applicable Human Rights law."

To put it bluntly, UC would like to lock up religious universities in their own heads - not prevented from believing whatever they want, but not able to act on it by hiring in accordance with their beliefs.

The wry joke in all this is that UC presents its new policy as “anti-discriminatory” and “inclusive”, when all the time, UC is launching a starvation campaign against private faith-based universities. The Godfather will deny them recognition and financial support until they either cave in or shrivel up.

Why is all this happening? In the case of the law societies, the answer is clear: in Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia, the lawyers have effectively declared that TWU’s opposition to same-sex marriage is equivalent to racism. In their view, graduates from such a school do not belong in the community of licensed lawyers. The question is headed to the Supreme Court, which will have its say about the law societies' version of ‘tolerance’.

So much for the law societies, but why is Universities Canada also turning into a bully against faith-based institutions? UC is not forthcoming about its specific motivations, and cloaks its new policy in the language of love and inclusion: "the proposed new criterion aligns with the views of Canadians generally and of the majority of university leaders with respect to diversity and inclusion."

But it may be no coincidence that UC's move comes at the same time as the lawyers are shouting “bigot” and hater” at TWU. As the largest private Christian university in Canada, and one with a covenant which includes the community’s sexual morality, TWU would be directly affected by UC’s new policy. It won’t matter that TWU has long been rated as one of Canada’s best universities. It won’t matter that TWU has the legal right to hire in accordance with its faith. If it dares to exercise its faith beliefs, TWU would be thrown out into the cold.

In the larger context, the new gender ideology is cornering Christian schools at all levels, both in Canada and elsewhere. In Alberta, the provincial government has just launched an investigation of private Christian schools that have refused to establish gay clubs, threatening a loss of government funding unless the schools give in. In California, faith-based universities are fighting hard for their religious freedom against an “anti-discrimination” bill which would expose them to crippling lawsuits from students who may feel ‘offended’ if, for instance, these schools restrict the use of restrooms by transgender students.

The present attack by Universities Canada is extremely serious. It is both secretive in execution and possibly lethal in outcome. If UC’s policy is adopted as worded, then faith-based universities may lose their seats at the table. Without de facto accreditation and lacking access to scholarship money, they will be forced to operate in the shadow margins of the educational system. Over time, such an existence might prove unsustainable, leading to a loss of educational choices for Canadians. Is this what most Canadians want?

I don’t think they do. And Universities Canada seems to share that belief, otherwise it wouldn’t be so sneaky. But thinking is no longer enough. The ball will continue to roll unless we do something. It’s time to let UC know that they’ve overstepped their place, by trying to jump over human rights legislation and restrict the rights of faith-based schools. Canadian society is proud of its robust commitment to religious freedom. We must not let faceless bureaucrats steal it away.

Photo: courtesy of R. Orville Lyttle at Flickr Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Article copyright: Lea Z. Singh, all rights reserved. Please contact author for rights to republish or translate.

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