What’s Left of Freedom?

In the Trinity Western cases, the Supreme Court eviscerates religious liberty in Canada

In my last post, I discussed the administrative and constitutional law issues relating to judicial review of the decisions of the law societies of British Columbia and Ontario to deny accreditation to the law school set up by the Trinity Western University, which the Supreme Court upheld in in Law Society of British Columbia v. Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32 and Trinity Western University v. Law Society of Upper Canada, 2018 SCC 33.  Here, I turn to the religious freedom aspect of the decisions. (Once again, the British Columbia decision is the one that sets out the judges’ reasoning in full, and I will refer to it below.) As indicated in the last post, in my view the Supreme Court’s decisions are disastrous, because they more or less nullify the constitutional protection for religious freedom enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Trinity Western requires its students (as well as faculty) to sign and abide by a “Covenant” that proscribes, among other things, sex outside heterosexual marriage. This is widely seen as discrimination against gay and lesbian (potential) students, and was the reason for the law societies’ decisions not to accredit Trinity Western’s law school. Trinity Western argued that these decisions infringed its and its students’ freedom of religion, and that the infringement could not be justified under the Charter.

As on the issues covered in the last post, the Court is split. The majority judgment signed by Justices Abella, Moldaver, Karakatsanis, Wagner, and Gascon holds that there is indeed a prima facie infringement of religious liberty, but that it is not especially serious and is easily outweighed by the need to prevent harm to students. The Chief Justice, concurring, also finds that there is an infringement of religious freedom, and indeed a rather more serious than the majority lets on, but one that is nevertheless outweighed by the law societies’ desire to avoid condoning discrimination. By contrast, Justice Rowe, also concurring, thinks that religious freedom is not at stake at all. Justices Brown and Côté dissent, finding an infringement of religious freedom that is not justified.

* * *

The majority is of the view that constitutional protection extends to “the socially embedded nature of religious belief” and to “[t]he ability of religious adherents to come together and create cohesive communities of belief and practice”. [64] Trinity Western “is a private religious institution created to support the collective religious practices of its members”, whose rights were “limited” [61] when it was denied accreditation, because their ability to put into practice a “sincere[] belie[f] that studying in a community defined by religious beliefs in which members follow particular religious rules of conduct contributes to their spiritual development” was thereby undermined. [70] The majority adds that, while the freedoms of expression and association, as well as equality rights, were also raised in the cases, “the religious freedom claim is sufficient to account for [these] rights of [Trinity Western]’s community members in the analysis.” [77]

The Chief Justice agrees that “the freedom of religion of members of the Trinity Western community” [120] has been infringed. To be sure, as individuals, they can go on holding their beliefs regardless of whether the law societies accredit the Trinity Western law school. However, they would be “prevent[ed] from carrying out a practice flowing from [their] belief about the environment in which [Trinity Western] would offer a legal education”. [125] The Chief Justice adds that the freedoms of expression and association must be included within “the ambit of the guarantee of freedom of religion”. [122]

Justice Rowe, by contrast, denies that anyone’s freedom of religion is being infringed. He starts from the premise “that religious freedom is based on the exercise of free will”, because it “involves a profoundly personal commitment”. [212] For Justice Rowe, it follows from this that, although religion can have a “communal aspect”, it is individuals, and not institutions ― such as Trinity Western ―, who can invoke the right to religious freedom. [219] “[M]embers of the evangelical Christian community” [219] who attend Trinity Western can assert religious rights, but Justice Rowe is skeptical that they “sincerely believe in the importance of studying in an environment where all students abide by the Covenant”. [235] They prefer to do so, but do they really think they have to?Even assuming that this is so, however, Trinity Western’s evangelical students are not entitled to constitutional protection for their belief, which “constrains the conduct of nonbelievers — in other words, those who have freely chosen not to believe”. [239] They cannot, in the name of religious freedom, impose their views on those who do not share them. Since the legislation that sets up Trinity Western requires it to admit non-members of the evangelical community, these non-members are entitled to have their freedom protected too. As for “alleged infringements to … expressive and associate [sic] freedom rights … and … equality rights”, the members of the Trinity Western community “have not discharged their burden” of establishing them. [252]

The dissent sees things very differently. In the opinion of Justices Côté and Brown, the law societies’ denial of accreditation to Trinity Western “undermines the core character of a lawful religious institution and disrupts the vitality of the [Trinity Western] community”. [324] This community has the right to set its own rules for its self-governance, and the law societies are not entitled to dictate how it should do so as a condition of providing it with a benefit. Such dictation

contravened the state’s duty of religious neutrality: [it] represented an expression by the state of religious preference which promotes the participation of non-believers, or believers of a certain kind, to the exclusion of the community of believers found at [Trinity Western]. [324]

The dissenters are exactly right. The majority and the Chief Justice are also correct in recognizing an infringement of the Charter‘s guarantee of religious freedom, though as we shall see, the majority’s recognition, in particular, is well-nigh meaningless, and it is too bad that neither the majority nor the Chief Justice articulate the issue in terms of state neutrality. The key to the Charter aspect of the case is that Trinity Western has been denied something that there is no doubt it would have been granted but for the religious belief and practice which it embodies. While some, including both critics and supporters of the Supreme Court’s decision, have suggested that the case should really have been about freedom of association, I think it makes sense to frame as being about the state neutrality aspect of religious liberty. (That said, freedom of association would also have been a plausible approach ― at least if one ignores the Supreme Court’s refashioning of this provision into one that only benefits labour unions).

Justice Rowe, in my view, is quite mistaken. For one thing, I don’t understand how he, as an appellate judge, can make findings, or even speculate, about the sincerity of individual’s religious beliefs. For another ― and this, as we’ll presently see, is a problem not just for him, but for the majority too ― the suggestion that a court can distinguish between beliefs that are well and truly obligatory and those that are mere “preferences” goes against the approach adopted by the majority of the Supreme Court in Syndicat Northcrest v Amselem, 2004 SCC 47, [2004] 2 SCR 551, which rejects testing the “validity” of religious beliefs, or asking whether a given practice is regarded as truly mandatory or supererogatory. Most fundamentally, Justice Rowe is wrong to claim that Trinity Western is trying to impose its beliefs on anyone. It demands forbearance from certain actions ― without inquiring into the reasons for this forbearance, in the same way as the state normally demands compliance with laws but doesn’t require citizens to subscribe to the principles behind them. Such demands are indeed quite antithetical to the freedom of conscience ― and one can only hope that Justice Rowe will remember this if or when the Law Society of Ontario’s Statement of Principles policy comes to his court for review ― but this is not what is going on here.

* * *

For the majority, denying Trinity Western accreditation was the only way for the Law Societies to further their statutory mandate (as they understood it), and the denial was “proportionate” to that mandate. It “did not limit religious freedom to a significant extent”, [85] and “does not prohibit any evangelical Christians from adhering to the Covenant or associating with those who do”. [86] Trinity Western itself can still receive accreditation by removing the “Covenant”, or making compliance with it voluntary, and “a mandatory covenant is … not absolutely required for the religious practice at issue”. [87] As for the students who wish to attend it, they prefer to go to a law school governed by the mandatory “Covenant”, but do not have to.

Meanwhile, denying Trinity Western accreditation contributed to “maintaining equal access to and diversity in the legal profession”. [93] Even though accrediting Trinity Western wouldn’t restrict LGBTQ students’ options in comparison with what they currently are, it would leave them with fewer options than their peers which “undermines true” or “substantive equality”. [95] The denial of accreditation also serves to protect any LGBTQ students who were to venture to Trinity Western from “the risk of significant harm” to their dignity, [96] and prevents Trinity Western from “impos[ing]” [102] its religious beliefs on them (and others). The majority concludes that this is just one of the cases where “minor limits on religious freedom are often an unavoidable reality of a decision-maker’s pursuit of its statutory mandate in a multicultural and democratic society.” [100]

The Chief Justice agrees that the denial of accreditation “was minimally impairing”, [127] but she takes the infringement of Trinity Western’s rights more seriously than the majority. Interference with a “lengthy and passionately held tradition” “of religious schools … established to allow people to study at institutions that reflect their faith and their practices” [130] is no trivial matter. Besides, court cannot assess the significance of religious beliefs and practices, or conclude that they are of minor significance because some believers “may be prepared to give [them] up”. [132] Finally, the Chief Justice rejects the argument that Trinity Western is imposing its beliefs on others:

Students who do not agree with the religious practices do not need to attend these schools. But if they want to attend, for whatever reason, and agree to the practices required of students, it is difficult to speak of compulsion. [133]

On the other side of the balancing exercise, the Chief Justice is skeptical that denying Trinity Western accreditation will do much for LGBTQ students, few of whom would ever consider attending it. However, she gives more weight to “the imperative of refusing to condone discrimination against LGBTQ people, pursuant to the [law societies’] statutory obligation to protect the public interest”. [137] The Chief Justice finds that “[d]espite the forceful claims made by” Trinity Western, she “cannot conclude that” denying it accreditation “was unreasonable”. [148]

The dissent, by contrast, sees no good justification for the denial of accreditation to Trinity Western ― even on the assumption (which, as explained in the previous post, the dissent denies) that the law societies have a free-standing mandate to advance “the public interest”. To be sure, Trinity Western’s “Covenant” is exclusionary; but  this exclusion “is a function of accommodating religious freedom, which itself advances the public interest by promoting diversity in a liberal, pluralist society”. [327] Canada has traditionally accommodated religious difference, instead of insisting, as the majority does, that it must sometimes be curtailed in the pursuit of statutory objectives. Moreover, “it is the state and state actors — not private institutions like [Trinity Western] — which are constitutionally bound to accommodate difference in order to foster pluralism”. [330] The state is supposed to be secular ― and that means

pluralism and respect for diversity, not the suppression of full participation in society by imposing a forced choice between conformity with a single majoritarian norm and withdrawal from the public square. Secularism does not exclude religious beliefs, even discriminatory religious beliefs, from the public square. Rather, it guarantees an inclusive public square by neither privileging nor silencing any single view. [332]

Besides,  “the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia has already determined that the public interest is served by accommodating religious communities” [335] when it exempted Trinity Western from the application of the provincial anti-discrimination legislation.

The dissent also rejects the Chief Justice’s position that accrediting Trinity Western would amount to condoning its discriminatory beliefs:

State recognition of the rights of a private actor does not amount to an endorsement of that actor’s beliefs … Equating approval to condonation turns the protective shield of the Charter into a sword by effectively imposing Charter obligations on private actors. [338]

The state is not entitled to impose its values on those who are not subject to constitutional obligations. While it may not favour particular beliefs, neither may it deny recognition to persons or institutions who hold beliefs that are at odds with its own commitments.

On this, again, the dissenters are exactly right. The majority and the Chief Justice are allowing the law societies to circumvent the decisions of the framers of the Charter and the British Columbia legislature to permit illiberal and discriminatory private actors to retain and act on their religiously motivated beliefs. Yet religious freedom demands no less. When the state uses its regulatory (or, in other cases, its fiscal) power to deny benefits to persons and institutions whose only “fault” is that they hold religious beliefs of which the state does not approve, it not only fails to discharge its duty of neutrality, but actively seeks to eliminate religious diversity or, at best, to push dissentient religious views into the closet. (I use this phrase advisedly.) Moreover, the Chief Justice’s logic ― that the state is entitled to deny a license, benefit, or privilege to persons or entities whose views it ought not to condone ― extends well beyond the realm of religious freedom. Can racist parents be prevented from sending their children to public schools? Holocaust deniers from getting driver’s licenses? Can flat-Earthers be denied passports, or EI payments? In fine, can any interaction a citizen might have with the state be conditioned on that citizen’s not holding proscribed beliefs?

The majority, of course, is no more respectful of religious freedom than the Chief Justice ― and probably less so. Like Justice Rowe, it would, contrary to Amselem, set up secular courts as ecclesiastical tribunals responsible for determining what is and what is not mandatory as a matter of religious dogma. Like Justice Rowe, it confuses rules of conduct and reasons for complying with them and denies the agency of persons who voluntarily choose to submit to rules whose raison d’être they might disapprove of. As for its understanding of “substantive” equality, it requires denying options to all so as not to admit of any disparity, even one that literally leaves “enough and as good” ― and indeed, more than enough and better ― options to those ostensibly excluded; in other words, a levelling down.

* * *

I’m not sure how much is left of the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty after the Trinity Western decisions. Presumably, purely private devotion still cannot be forbidden or compelled ― to that extent, it is fortunate that the Chief Justice’s approach, which would have opened even private religious views to scrutiny the moment a citizen starts interacting with the state, has not prevailed. But any relationships between religious persons or entities with others ― even entirely consensual relationships ― are now open to regulation in which the religiously motivated actions can be regulated or prohibited as impositions of belief, or subjected to the imposition of the state’s values, whether or not there is any legislative basis for such imposition in the circumstances. Purely symbolic harms are deemed to provide sufficient justification for regulation, and multiculturalism is made to serve as an excuse for silencing and assimilating non-conformists. It is telling that the arguments that purportedly justify the denial of accreditation to Trinity Western are not meaningfully different from that those that supposedly support bans on Muslim face veils, which are also said to be necessary to prevent the imposition of retrograde, discriminatory views on those who do not freely embrace them.

Almost five years ago, I commented on an article by Douglas Laycock called “Religious Liberty and the Culture Wars,” which decried the growing hostility to religious freedom among large sections of the political left. Professor Laycock connected this hostility to the religious right’s own attempts to suppress the liberties of the people it regarded as morally misguided. But, contrary to the claims of the Supreme Court’s majority and Justice Rowe, no such thing happened at Trinity Western. However distasteful its views ― and I do find them distasteful, not just the homophobia but the illiberalism more broadly ― Trinity Western wasn’t trying to impose them on unwilling outsiders. Professor Laycock was hopeful that “[w]e could still create a society in which both sides can live their own values, if we care enough about liberty to protect it for both sides”. (41) The Trinity Western cases show this possibility is no longer a realistic one in Canada, for the foreseeable future. The winners in the culture war have chosen not to take prisoners, and to accept nothing short of an unconditional surrender. The Supreme Court holds that they are entitled to do so.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

3 thoughts on “What’s Left of Freedom?”

  1. A very good post. Among other things, I was struck by how the court disguises it’s justification for leveling down by arguing that accrediting the law school involves harm to LGBT applicants by limiting their options. Putting aside the question of the extent to which the Covenant actually minimizes their opportunity, it strikes me as hardly plausible to suppose the Covenant produces harm of this sort. Usually, harm is counterfactual; person A is harmed only if he is put in a worse situation than that in which he would have otherwise been. The SCC has to argue that the baseline is the situation in which TWU has a law school which is not subject to the Covenant. But I find it rather improbable that TWU will be okay with a law school that contravenes its basic religious precepts and is dissonant with the rest of the university, especially given the university’s evangelical ethos. So if the two states that are being compared are the circumstance where the university has law school within the covenant’s ambit and the circumstance where the university has no law school, it’s fairly clear that the former involves no loss of opportunities for LGBT since at least as many opportunities are available in the latter as in the former, so LGBT students are not placed in a worse state by accrediting TWU’s law school (at least with respect to opportunities available for LGBT applicants to get into law school).

    That leaves the symbolic harm argument. I’m generally suspicious about arguments that focus on the consequences of the expressive nature of the law. I’m not exactly sure how accrediting a law school can be interpreted as disrespecting a minority, nor am I particularly convinced that governments can influence social attitudes in this way. But even supposing accrediting TWU does engender some measure of disrespect for LGBT students either among the public in general or among members of the bar, I’m not at all sure why the argument can’t work in reverse. That is, surely if successful accreditation can symbolically harm the LGBT community, then failing to accredit the law school produces symbolic harm to Evangelic Christians.

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