A religious liberty fight in Canada

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: religious liberty in Canada.

Regular listeners will recognize the name Trinity Western University. That’s the Christian college in Canada that fought a years-long court battle to open the country’s first Christian law school. Law societies in two Canadian provinces opposed the school because of its Biblical beliefs about marriage and sexuality.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Trinity Western ultimately lost its case at the Canadian Supreme Court earlier this year. A few months later, the school decided to make its behavioral code voluntary for students, faculty, and staff. That means easing—if not fully erasing—a worldview perspective taught since the school’s founding in 1962.

Now, Christian K through 12 education faces a similar challenge in the western province of Alberta. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg brings us this report.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Calvin Christian School serves 850 K-12 students in the farming community of Coalhurst, Alberta, a town about an hour from the U.S. border.

In addition to a faith-based education, the Reformed Dutch school also offers students trade and apprenticeship programs. Principal Marc Slingerland says when students graduate they leave with hands-on skills.

SLINGERLAND: We have many entrepreneurs, business people, graduates from our school who have gone on to start their own companies. Our graduates are there and they’re making a difference making Alberta better.

But the last three years have called the continued existence of Calvin Christian and other faith-based schools into question.

The trouble started in 2015 when Alberta’s Conservative Party passed Bill 10, amending the provinces School Act. The bill requires all schools to start a Gay Straight Alliance club at the request of just one student.

SLINGERLAND: So Bill 10 was actually the first time that Alberta education specified not only an outcome of safe caring, respectful, inclusive school environments, but also exactly the way that that needed to be done.

In March 2016, the government had every Alberta school submit anti-bullying policies for review, to check compliance with the new law. Administrators didn’t hear anything back for two and a half years.

In the meantime, lawmakers passed Bill 24 further amending the School Act. Among other changes, the law gives the government the ability to rewrite schools’ anti-bullying policies to be inclusive and diverse.

Using that standard, last month, the government finally issued feedback on schools’ anti-bullying policies. Christian schools didn’t fare well.

The Ministry of Education highlighted policy elements it wants changed. In at least 30 Christian school policies, including Calvin Christian’s, the highlighted elements contain Biblical statements of faith. Slingerland describes some of the flagged elements in his school’s policy.

SLINGERLAND: In a reference to the unchangeable and infallible truth of the word of God is according to them, a provision containing language which suggests alternative viewpoints are not equally legitimate, which is disrespectful of diversity and thus inconsistent with the law. A reference to men and women is highlighted as a provision which they consider unwelcoming, uncaring and/or disrespectful.

Education Minister David Eggen told Christian schools if don’t remove the designated faith-based language, they’re not in compliance with the law. If they don’t comply, they could lose accreditation and funding. Without accreditation, the schools can’t legally educate students.

Slingerland says losing funding could also be devastating. In Alberta, taxpayers partially fund faith-based and independent schools with a voucher-like system. Many schools receive $5,000 per student per year.  

SLINGERLAND: The thought of funding being removed is, is very stressful for parents, for, for the school, for the board. Um, we, it, it would mean huge changes.

Along with 29 other Christian schools, Calvin Christian filed a lawsuit to block the government’s demands. Representing them is John Carpay, the founder and president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. Carpay says the schools are fighting back because if they don’t, there’s no end in sight to government demands.

CARPAY: If you remove Christianity from your anti bullying policies, uh, because the of the government has said that this is somehow harmful to LGTBQ people. If you accept that, what basis do you have for keeping your Christianity in any of your other policies?

Faith communities aren’t alone in their concern. Donna Trimble is with Parents for Choice in Education, a non-religious group with 11,000 members that’s raising awareness about the government’s demands. Trimble says many parents, regardless of belief, are worried. One, because faith-based schools save taxpayers $150 million a year. And two…

TRIMBLE: To strip the fundamental freedoms for one section of the population, even if you do think you’re okay with it, simply gives permission for in a later time your rights to be stripped away.

Calvin Christian’s Marc Slingerland says in the days to come his school could be faced with difficult choices. But in the end, their ultimate allegiance is clear.

SLINGERLAND: If it comes down to a choice between Minister Eggen who says I cannot use the words male and female in my policy, or Jesus Christ who said from the beginning of creation, he made them male and female. If we need to line up with Minister Eggen or with Jesus Christ, the choice is very clear.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(Photo/Facebook) Trinity Western University students gather outside the Canadian Supreme Court during oral arguments in November.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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