There are days when I wonder if my right to practise law will be taken from me simply because of my Christian beliefs.
I ask myself this question: Could our society eventually reach a point where Christians are banned from mainstream professions such as law, medicine, social work, etc?
Last Friday was one of those days.
The Canadian Supreme Court handed down it’s decision in the Trinity Western University (TWU) case.
TWU had appealed against the law societies of Ontario and British Columbia, who refused to accredit their law degree. They refused simply because the University asks its students to agree to Christian standards of behaviour, including a commitment to not engage in “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”
Almost unbelievably, the Supreme Court – the highest court in Canada - has affirmed their refusal.
Because of their Christian convictions, TWU will not be able to train lawyers who practice in British Columbia (where the University is based), or Ontario.
It seems there can be no legal career in parts of Canada for those who live consistently with their traditional marriage beliefs.
The Court said that the “public interest in the administration of justice” required the law societies to refuse to accredit the law school and that the community standards of the University constituted “harm” to LGBTIQ people.
They went on to say that the decision of the law societies was a valid way to protect the “positive public perception” of the legal profession.
TWU successfully overcame a similar challenge to the accreditation of their teaching degree back in 2001. But times are changing.
For hundreds of years, institutions like TWU who rely on freedom of association to operate have been nothing out of the ordinary.
Christian institutions around the world operate under a statement of faith or code of conduct which enshrines their Christian convictions. Their employment contracts often ask staff to abide by the code and all their activities are normally conducted in a way that reflects their faith basis.
Right now in Australia, there are countless churches, charities, education providers, healthcare providers, and other institutions that operate this way.
For Christians, it means that we can educate our children in a manner that is consistent with our moral and religious convictions. There are several faith-based schooling movements.
It means that we can do charitable works “in Jesus’ name.”
It means we can provide distinctly Christian health services to the sick and the needy.
As a most basic level, it means we can have churches.
For other groups in society it means that they too can form associations, corporations, clubs and other entities around shared beliefs, to promote and express those beliefs.
Even political parties do it. They operate according to guiding principles, and their members and elected officials are expected to toe the line. That is how they identify themselves as “Green” or “Labor” or “Liberal.”
This associational freedom has long been a cornerstone of our democracy. So much so that we take it for granted.
Maybe we shouldn’t take it for granted anymore.
This is one of many freedoms under threat in Australia, especially since the passing of same-sex marriage. Note that the relevant clause in TWU’s code of conduct related directly to the university’s beliefs about marriage.
But it’s not just the educational institutions that are targeted. Christian professionals training in secular institutions may also face difficulties.
Last year Felix Ngole lost an appeal against his expulsion from Sheffield University (UK) for expressing his Christian beliefs on marriage and sexuality. He was enrolled in a social work course which would have lead to professional accreditation. During the appeal, the university questioned his “fitness to practise” as a social worker.
Many professional accreditations are bestowed after the candidate passes a “fit and proper person” test, including legal practising certificates.
Is someone who holds bigoted views, which are “harmful” to LGBTIQ people, and bring their profession into disrepute a “fit and proper person”?
You can see how the doors are closing on Christian conviction in professional life.
This is why the Ruddock Review into religious freedom must include protections for Christian charities, churches and other institutions to continue to operate consistent with their beliefs. They should not lose charitable status, be refused accreditation, lose any government benefit, be deprived of funding, or lose government contracts. They should be able to employ staff who share their beliefs and provide services in a manner consistent with their beliefs.
This is also why extensive antidiscrimination provisions are required to ensure that nobody is discriminated against whether in their professional accreditation or anything else, simply because of their Christian convictions around marriage, gender and sexuality.
Last year, Malcolm Turnbull publicly declared that he believes in religious freedom, “even more” than he believes in same-sex marriage.
If that is true, then the Prime Minister has unfinished business to attend to.
Same-sex marriage has passed on his watch.
But we are still waiting for robust religious freedom protections that will ensure nobody is worse-off after the change.