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Friday
Oct112013

The Uncaged Christian Lawyer: Debating a Christian Law School with Clayton Ruby

I’m writing this while on VIA Rail to Toronto. After Wednesday’s debate about whether a Canadian Christian university can establish a law school with Clayton Ruby on Q with Jian Ghomeshi, I find myself a Christian out in public with an old Johnny Cash song running through my head – “I’m gonna break my rusty cage …”

For years now, I’ve been encouraging Christians not to feel trapped in a stained glass closet as our response to some aggressively expressed anti-religious attitudes in contemporary Canadian culture. If we feel so trapped, I’ve said, it is our decision to come out of that closet and declare our identity has its foundations in Christ in Whom “we live and move and have our being.”

But some of Clayton’s words – spoken by a self-described constitutional lawyer who started practising law when I was in grade 5 – left me feeling more like there was an effort to place me in a cage.

Clayton repeatedly made his point that in Canada “we have the highest respect for everyone’s religion as long as religion is in the area of worship…. But when it comes to action, then the limits of freedom of expression are met.” In the same breath he also advocated that gays and lesbians have to be free to express their sexual orientation in action, or their freedom is being constrained.

And here I confess, until Wednesday morning Clayton was “Mr. Ruby” to me; an influential historic legal figure who has held some significant positions of responsibility in our profession. Now, he’s just another lawyer demonstrating his bias through a willingness to pull quotes out of context from Supreme Court of Canada decisions to make his point.

In Clayton’s opinion, establishing a law school that would have a clear religious orientation should not be permitted.

Here’s confession number two. I have my own bias. In my opinion, there is neither Constitutional nor legal bar to establishing the school. Trinity Western University (TWU) is a private university that has met the academic and operational requirements of the Government of British Columbia to function as a Canadian university and, provided it meets the academic and operational requirements set out by the Federation of Law Societies, should be able to establish a law school – entirely at its own risk as there are no public funds involved.

TWU has successfully established schools of education, nursing and business among its 42 undergraduate and 16 graduate programs, with graduates (who are in high demand) required to comply with the professional codes of conduct of teachers, nursing and business associations, etc. It successfully secured the right to educate in a Christian university in compliance with professional standards in a 2001 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. To me, as a practicing lawyer, it is professional arrogance to suggest that “the law” should bar training in a Christian environment when we have practice qualification examinations and a code of conduct that govern our profession in similar manner.

Clayton threw out that he couldn’t find law schools in the Bible. I note here that the first five books of the Bible are often referenced as “the Law,” as in “the Law and the Prophets” (Old Testament);  and, that the entire book of Proverbs in the Bible is about the pursuit of wisdom. That’s why we have elementary schools, secondary schools and universities. They were originally established by the Church to facilitate the pursuit of wisdom. The environment for post-secondary education was intended to be Christian – as Canada’s contemporary 3 dozen or so Christian colleges and universities still attest – but there was no bar to attendance for those willing to accept the on campus standards; something which has been attested to in regard to TWU by gay and other non-Christian graduates and students.

The framers of our Constitution recognized and listed “freedom of religion” as a fundamental freedom for all Canadians. The Supreme Court of Canada has, from its first comments on this section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, asserted the importance of both belief and practice, including to “declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination.” That quote, from 1985 in the R v Big M Drug Mart case, is still regarded as the court’s definitive statement on freedom of religion.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed this understanding. It has also affirmed religion as a recognized part of basic human identity – including the right not to believe – which informs our minds, character and behaviour.

The Court has soundly rejected contemporary efforts to redefine the concept of tolerance in a way that would result in the marginalization of religiously informed thought, reasoning, instruction or public engagement. And, it has repeatedly affirmed that concept to acknowledge the space that exists for religion and the religiously informed life in all of Canadian society.

At one point in our on-air conversation, Clayton referred to religious belief as “stupid,” although noting people have a right to believe what they want to believe. For me this was a remark intended to confine Christians to a lesser place in Canadian society, the intellectual equivalent of encouraging that Christians, and other people whose life and intellect is informed by our faith, be placed in cages that exclude us from engaging in public or public careers. It’s an old, failed argument and the cages it attempts to create are weak and rusted.

Jian Ghomeshi was a great host and moderator; challenging us both with questions from his own research on the topic and holding a neutral position in his statements.

Ultimately, the decision of the Federation of Law Societies is also a neutral one. The Federation isn’t asked to decide based on my feelings or Clayton’s. Its decision is simply about the law and academic standards.

So what do I do with my feelings from a 20 minute debate? Besides blogging (and trying not to weigh you down with a bunch of Supreme Court decisions), I’m gonna break my rusty cage

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