Bryan Sandberg is sitting with me in a cafeteria at Trinity Western University, forty kilometres southeast of Vancouver and 11,000 kilometres from Davao, Philippines, where his missionary parents raised him. He came out of the closet at fifteen: “Mom would come and anoint my head with oil while I was pretending to sleep. I think she was trying to cast the demon out of me.”
A friend counselled him to apply to Harvard, where his sexuality would be more accepted, but he was determined to attend a Christian university. Sandberg arrived at the evangelical campus in 2010. He was eighteen, and highly suicidal. “It was God who carried me through that,” he tells me. “I feel God is continually supplying me with grace and forgiveness and love.”
To be accepted at TWU, Sandberg (like all the 4,000 students here) agreed to follow the school’s Community Covenant. Among other promises, he swore to abstain from sex outside of marriage, defined here, like in the Bible, as a union between a man and a woman. And that seemingly small provision is what has convinced many beyond these quiet green grounds that TWU is a bastion of homophobia and discrimination.
The covenant has always riled gay activists (it has existed in some form since the school was founded in 1962), but debate came to a head in the spring of 2012 when TWU announced its intention to open Canada’s first faith-based law school in September 2015. The Federation of Law Societies of Canada, which coordinates all provincial and territorial law societies, convened a special advisory committee to answer the question: Should TWU be allowed to form a law school while screening students on biblical grounds? In December 2013, the committee rubber-stamped the endeavour, as did BC minister of Advanced Education Amrik Virk. Then, in late April, provincial law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia rejected the federation’s decision, causing some to worry that TWU law grads would not be welcome to practise law in those provinces.
When I visit the capacious offices of Bob Kuhn, I find that the TWU president sees himself as the one being discriminated against. “Twenty or thirty years ago,” he tells me, “people understood religion more than they do today. Today, religion is often considered a bad thing: Christian students don’t have an easy ride. Standing up in class and saying, I’m Christian—having been there, I can tell you—can be the basis for a nasty response.” Being gay myself, I know what it feels like to announce your minority status. A certain unvoiced irony clouds the air.
Kuhn has practised law for thirty-four years. His Christian life has, apparently, never fouled his career. Interestingly, he has acted on behalf of gays and lesbians in the past, and tells me he “would not seek to be an affront to their rights under the Charter.” He argues that “we’re either a pluralistic society or we’re not. And I fear we’re becoming a homogenous society governed by secularity.” He believes TWU’s covenant is just one component in a multivalent culture.
But how can we reconcile the opposing ideals of religious freedom and equality for sexual minorities without allowing one to cannibalize the other? Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby means to limit TWU’s freedom in a distinctive way: On April 14, he launched a suit against Minister Virk to nullify his approval of the law school on constitutional grounds. TWU may not be governed by the equality provision of the Charter, but the province of British Columbia certainly is.
The petitioner, Trevor Loke, is a twenty-five-year-old gay Christian in a common-law relationship who wishes to become a lawyer. As things stand, his refusal to sign away his sex life would make his application to TWU’s program impossible. “It is no answer to say that there are other law schools to choose from,” he argues in his affidavit. “There were other water fountains and lunch counters to choose from, but that did not justify segregating public spaces based on race.” Ruby drew similar historical parallels when I met him at his Toronto office: “To require that someone deny their nature to get into a school hasn’t been acceptable in Canada for about fifty years.”
Bryan Sandberg, who is studying communications, has somehow made the concessions that Loke and Ruby consider impossible. This is not Stockholm Syndrome; he knows where his heart belongs, and it belongs in a complicated territory. To him, the school is not a legal battleground, nor a sound bite in a news story.
Trinity Western University is the first place where Sandberg came out to another Christian and felt accepted. Terrified, he read aloud a seventeen-page testament to the young men in his dorm. It took forty minutes to recite his life story. When he was done, the guys said, Bryan, what do you want us to do? How can we make you feel accepted? When faced with something they didn’t understand, “they gave me love,” he says. “They gave me love; that’s what I found here.” Part of me wants to shake young Mr. Sandberg; another part of me is deeply envious.
We say goodbye. Banners flutter overhead, emblazoned with verses from A Letter to the Exiles (Jeremiah 29), and three abstract but earnest virtues: identity, purpose, direction. I walk past the nestled buildings, unsure how to reconcile these various voices. The TWU case makes only one thing clear: that we live, every day, with intractable differences.
Michael Harris published The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection this summer.
Hanna Barczyk is a former art intern at The Walrus, and contributor to the New York Times and This Magazine.