Magazines 2017 Jan - Feb Discrimination and Christian universities

Discrimination and Christian universities

04 January 2017 By John G. Stackhouse Jr.

What to do when the academic establishment forbids firing on ethical or doctrinal grounds

A hugely important decision was taken recently by Universities Canada (UC), the club of mainstream universities that currently includes such evangelical institutions as Trinity Western, The King’s, Canadian Mennonite and Redeemer.

The decision came in the form of a new bylaw that insists on full academic freedom for all members. It sounds like a reaffirmation of established principles, and so it received little attention in the media.

However, it arrives on the rising tide of resistance to anything that looks like discrimination against people identifying in the LGBTQ+ range, doubtless heightened by the furor over Trinity Western’s proposed law school.

The essential point (although the language is not entirely clear) will be that religious institutions may use doctrinal tests upon hiring, but not for firing – and they must not impose ethical requirements on the basis of sexual preference.

Both doctrine and ethics however are mission-critical for Christian universities. If a religious institution can’t insist on doctrinal orthodoxy (e.g., belief in Jesus alone as Lord), it can’t be itself and do what it is purposed to do.

And if a religious institution can’t insist on ethical norms other than those allowed by society at large (e.g., celibacy among nuns, chastity among students), it can’t be itself and do what it is purposed to do.

Not every ethical or doctrinal norm is mission-critical to a Christian university. But some are.

Schools that lack the authority to investigate and, if necessary, remove faculty members teaching at cross-purposes to the institution will unavoidably lose their own integrity.

But won’t faculty simply resign, many ask, if they fall out of sympathy with the school’s expressed values? The workplace reality is that it’s almost impossible for mid- or late-career professors to find work elsewhere. So the pressure to rationalize, hide and disguise your views is extremely strong.

Two main arguments were possible against adopting the UC’s new rule. The first: UC should leave all chartering to the provinces and regulate only academic standards for university status.

The second would directly tackle the issue: UC should recognize that postsecondary education offered in a confessionally unified community has its distinctive advantages for teaching and scholarship. UC would thus allow religious universities to define their own mission-critical requirements of ethical and doctrinal norms, acknowledging the compromise of academic freedom in light of this overriding value. UC would therefore again regulate only academic standards.

The first was offered and didn’t work. The second wasn’t attempted. Arguments for "religious freedom" seem unacceptable in Canada nowadays in the face of LGBTQ+ considerations, and unbridled academic freedom is among the most sacred of university principles (despite the actual absence of it in most universities).

What next? One or more of the Christian schools may cave in to UC’s demands and experience the inevitable erosion of distinctive Christian beliefs and mores we have seen in church-affiliated colleges across North America.

And the others? They may have to form their own league of committed Christian universities, performing for each other the services UC performs for public schools (more like the Christian College Consortium in the USA rather than the more diverse Christian Higher Education Canada).

Such a league could collectively bargain with the UC schools regarding the key issues of transfer of credit and recognition of degrees toward graduate work, and could also apply to the federal research councils for funding privileges similar to those currently enjoyed only by members of the UC club.

It is sadly a sign of these fractious and absolutist times that the willingness impressively evident at Confederation to compromise with neighbours who believe and practise different forms of religion has been openly discarded in what is supposed to be one of the more enlightened and liberal sectors of our society.

Even the vaunted Charter of Rights and Freedomswill be set aside if it allows alternatives we find offensive.

However, until a respect for religious difference re-emerges among the secular universities of Canada, intentionally Christian schools still have live options. The future for them does not have to be dim.

John Stackhouse teaches at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B.. He previously served as professor of religion at the University of Manitoba. Find more of these columns at