Back To Law Matters | Summer 2015

Trinity Western University's Community Covenant


This is a welcome opportunity to discuss the TWU Community Covenant.  It is at the centre of the controversy of whether TWU should have a law school, and it deserves careful reading and consideration.  I will briefly set the theological context, then discuss the content in some detail, and conclude with the legal context.  But first, a brief introduction to Trinity Western University is in order. 

An Introduction to TWU

Trinity Western University began as Trinity Junior College in 1962.  The Trinity Junior College Act of 1969 set the statutory mandate for it to offer education “with an underlying philosophy and viewpoint that is Christian.”1 In 1979 Trinity Western was given statutory authority to grant undergraduate degrees, and beginning in 1985, as “Trinity Western University”, it was authorized to offer graduate degree programs.2

TWU continues as a private Christian liberal arts and sciences university, offering over 42 undergraduate programs and 17 graduate programs.  It has professional programs for Nursing, Education, Counselling Psychology and Business.  TWU consistently ranks at or near the top in national university surveys and has four Canada Research Chairs.  It competes in sport against all the major public universities in Canada and has won multiple women’s and men’s national championships in soccer, volleyball and track and field.  About 4,000 students from over 50 countries are enrolled at TWU each year.  It has over 26,000 alumni.

The Community Covenant

a)  “Community” and “Covenant”

The concept of community is critical in the Christian faith.  The Christian Church is considered to be the body of Christ, and the analogy of the physical body is common in the Bible.  The individual parts of the body need each other to be complete, as do the individual members of a Christian community.  There is mutual reliance and mutual support.  No single member of the TWU community is complete, and no one can completely succeed, outside that community.

The concept of covenant is equally critical.  It is modeled on God’s covenant, which is certain and unchanging, and does not rely on an exchange of consideration as in a legal contract.  While God’s covenant calls for a response of obedience, it is not terminated by any failure of the beneficiary of the covenant.  In a legal contract, the failure of one party to perform as promised gives the other party the right to treat the contract and all obligations under the contract as ended.  In God’s covenant – and in the Community Covenant at TWU – a failure by one member of the community does not release the university and the other individual members of the community from their continuing obligations to love, respect and care.

b)  What the Community Covenant is

The Community Covenant is the expression of how the members of the TWU community – the students, faculty and staff – wish to study, work and live together.  It is based on how the TWU community understands Christian teaching and the Christian life.  It is explicit, comprehensive and detailed.  It is transparent and explains itself by citing Biblical passages on which its provisions are based.

The Community Covenant is part of the invitation to join the TWU community and recognizes that the “actions of each member have a direct effect on the other co-owners of the community.”3

Agreeing to the Community Covenant is a requirement for all students, faculty and staff.  It is explicitly stated to be a “solemn pledge”, “a contractual agreement and a relational bond” among all members of the community by which they “strive to achieve respectful and purposeful unity that aims for the advancement of all, recognizing the diversity of viewpoints, life journeys, stages of maturity, and roles within the TWU community.”It is crucial to knitting this large and very diverse body of people into a community.

The Community Covenant is available for prospective students from their first inquiry about admission.  They are encouraged to read the Covenant, to ask questions, and to seek clarifications. Reading the Community Covenant will give students a very clear idea of what TWU is, what it will be like to study there, and what life on campus will be like.  The Covenant can be agreed to at any point in the admissions process prior to registering for classes.

The Community Covenant is an attraction for students who want to attend a university where everyone explicitly commits to maintaining a respectful, caring, supportive and safe environment that provides every opportunity for students to fulfill their potential.

c)  What the Community Covenant is not

The Community Covenant is not a statement of faith.  It does not require Christian faith or any religious faith; it deals with conduct.  Nor is the Community Covenant an affirmation of belief in the Biblical ideals, principles and standards on which the Covenant is based.  That is made clear where the Covenant says:

TWU welcomes all students who qualify for admission, recognizing that not all affirm the theological views that are vital to the University’s Christian identity.5

That is why students of different faiths, or of no faith at all, have always been admitted to and been part of the TWU community.

The Community Covenant is not an imposition or a barrier.  Students choose to accept responsibilities for their conduct and are beneficiaries of the responsibilities of all other members of the community. The conduct expected is not beyond any student’s capacity and does not require a compromise of identity. In particular, gay and lesbian students are neither required nor encouraged to deny their sexual orientation; they are asked to refrain from sexual activity while a student. 

The Community Covenant, and specifically its provisions regarding sexual conduct outside of marriage between a man and a woman, is not a fringe or fundamentalist interpretation of Christian doctrine.  Rather, it is solidly grounded in Scripture and is the historic and orthodox position of Christian faith and practice that continues to be followed by the vast majority of the Christian church today.

The Community Covenant is not a treadmill to expulsion of wayward students.  There are accountability provisions that require care and compassion, and that aim at healing and restoration.

d)  What the Community Covenant requires

The Community Covenant provides specifics of the conduct expected of members of the TWU community.  They include reference to the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman and a prohibition on sexual intimacy outside of such a marriage.  But those provisions are only a small part of a greater whole.

The requirements of the Community Covenant are grounded in the general proposition that members of the community commit themselves to “embody attitudes and to practise actions identified in the Bible as virtues, and to avoid those portrayed as destructive.”6

The Community Covenant promotes the Christian virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, compassion, humility, forgiveness, peacemaking, mercy and justice.  It calls for honesty, civility, truthfulness, generosity and integrity, treating all persons with respect and dignity, and being responsible citizens who contribute to the welfare of creation and society.   It encourages the support for other members of the community while extending forgiveness, accountability and restoration.

The members of the TWU community also agree to voluntarily abstain from destructive communication, prejudice, and harassment; from lying, cheating, and plagiarism; and from other conduct such as drunkenness, the use or possession of illegal drugs, and the misuse of substances.

Each of these commitments under the Community Covenant have footnoted references to what TWU considers to be relevant passages of the Bible.  The purpose of the footnotes is to explain the biblical basis for TWU’s beliefs.  There is no requirement that students assent to or express belief in the Bible, the passages referred to, or the interpretation or relevance of those passages.   

To suggest otherwise is contrary to other provisions of the Community Covenant.  For example, the Community Covenant talks about forming an educational community for the pursuit of “truth and excellence”, where people and ideas are treated with “charity and respect”, and where people can “think critically and constructively about complex ideas.”7

That is why TWU continues to foster debate on issues such as sexual intimacy outside of opposite sex marriage.  A recent example was a well attended event on campus where two gay men energetically but respectfully expressed their opposing views on whether same-sex marriage is compatible with the Christian faith.8

A final part of the context for these commitments is a statement about freedom and a warning against legalisms:

...this covenant identifies particular Christian standards and recognizes degrees of latitude for individual freedom...

TWU rejects legalisms that mistakenly identify certain cultural practices as biblical imperatives, or that emphasize outward conduct as the measure of genuine Christian maturity...9

e)  Accountability

There is accountability for meeting the commitments of the Community Covenant.  It is an accountability of the university and of each member of the community to each other.

The first thing to note is that an accountability response to conduct is itself subject to the Community Covenant.  That is, any effort to hold one accountable must meet the ideals of love, kindness, compassion, mercy and justice; it must be done with respect and dignity; and it must be done so as to build up, encourage and support.10 Those are commitments of every member of the community that always apply.

Any accountability also must take note of “Areas for Careful Discernment and Sensitivity” which concludes:

In all respects, the TWU community expects its members to exercise wise decision-making according to biblical principles, carefully accounting for each individual’s capabilities, vulnerabilities, and values...11

The accountability procedures for students are set out in the Student Handbook.   The goals of the process are objectivity, care and acceptance (even when behaviour is unacceptable), to educate the student about the Community Covenant, and to have the student accept accountability for past behaviour and decide that future behaviour will be in keeping with the original commitment.  The needs of the individual must be balanced with the needs of the community.12  In short, the goal is development and restoration, not criticism or punishment.

The accountability procedures reflect a range of responses depending on the circumstances.13 There are informal processes, which are most commonly used, and formal processes with procedural safeguards for all concerned, and no-cost counselling and support for the student.  There is an appeal process for any accountability decision that is made.  

Most matters are resolved through an apology, an educational assignment (about substance abuse or cultural sensitivity, for example) or a warning.  In cases of property or financial loss, restitution or community service may be required.  More serious cases may result in a suspension, usually of one or two weeks.  A suspension beyond one semester is very rare, but even in such cases, students have returned to the University.  There has not been an expulsion for at least 20 years.

Matters of sexual conduct are treated the same as other matters.  The seriousness of the conduct, the circumstances, and the attitude of the student will be considered and the response and consequences will be proportionate.  There have been instances of both same-sex and opposite-sex conduct that were addressed under the Community Covenant.  In every case, the student was invited to remain at TWU.  There have been several instances over the years of an unmarried student becoming pregnant.  In every case, the accountability process allowed the student to continue at the University.

The Legal Context

a)  The Charter of Rights

The Community Covenant fits comfortably within the legal context of the Charter of Rights and its interpretation by the Supreme Court of Canada.  Freedom of conscience and religion has always been given a broad and generous interpretation, and this has been affirmed twice already this year.  Both Loyola High School14 and City of Saguenay15endorse the robust interpretation of section 2(a) established in Big M Drug Mart:

The freedom of religion protected by s. 2 (a) of the Charter  is not limited to religious belief, worship and the practice of religious customs.  Rather, it extends to conduct more readily characterized as the propagation of, rather than the practice of, religion.  As this Court held in Big M, “[t]he essence of the concept of freedom of religion” includes “the right to manifest religious belief . . . by teaching and dissemination” (p. 336).  Thus, Loyola’s expressed desire to teach its curriculum in accordance with Catholic beliefs falls within the scope of s. 2(a)’s protection.

Big M also affirms that the interpretation of the religious freedom guarantee should be “a generous rather than a legalistic one, aimed at fulfilling the purpose of the guarantee and securing for individuals the full benefit of the Charter ’s protection” (p. 344).16

b)  Importance of Identity and Community

The Supreme Court of Canada has also recognized that religious faith is a matter of identity of the individual, and forms part of the believer’s worldview.  It is not just a matter of choice that can be dismissed or ignored.  Further, the court has recognized the need for religious community and its significance to society.

In both Loyola and Saguenay, the Court adopted this from Professor Richard Moon:

Underlying the [state] neutrality requirement, and the insulation of religious beliefs and practices from political decision making, is a conception of religious beliefs or commitment as deeply rooted, or commitment as an element of the individual’s identity, rather than simply a choice or judgment she or he has made.  Religious belief lies at the core of the individual’s worldview.  It orients the individual in the world, shapes his or her perception of the social and natural orders, and provides a moral framework for his or her actions. Moreover, religious belief ties the individual to a community of believers and is often the central or defining association in her or his life.  The individual believer participates in a shared system of practices and values that may, in some cases, be described as a “way of life”. If religion is an aspect of the individual’s identity, then when the state treats his or her religious practices or beliefs as less important or less true than the practices of others, or when it marginalizes her or his religious community in some way, it is not simply rejecting the individual’s views and values, it is denying her or his equal worth.17  [emphasis added]

In discussing the concept of state neutrality on matters of religion in Saguenay, Gascon J. summarized the significance of religious freedom this way:

The neutrality of the public space therefore helps preserve and promote the multicultural nature of Canadian society enshrined in s. 27  of the Canadian CharterSection 27 requires that the state’s duty of neutrality be interpreted not only in a manner consistent with the protective objectives of the Canadian Charter, but also with a view to promoting and enhancing diversity [citations removed].

I would add that, in addition to its role in promoting diversity and multiculturalism, the state’s duty of religious neutrality is based on a democratic imperative. The rights and freedoms set out in the Quebec Charter and the Canadian Charter reflect the pursuit of an ideal: a free and democratic society. This pursuit requires the state to encourage everyone to participate freely in public life regardless of their beliefs [citations removed].18

In Loyola, the minority concurring opinion discussed the issue of whether institutions, in addition to individuals, can claim freedom of religion under the Charter.  While the majority did not consider it necessary to answer that question, the basis for the minority view was not disputed.  

McLachlan CJ. and Moldaver J. noted the collective dimension of freedom of religion and the importance of religious relationships and religious community.  They referred to previous decisions of the court and to international instruments that affirm and protect faith communities.  Noting “The individual and collective aspects of freedom of religion are indissolubly intertwined”, they confirmed that the Charter must protect religious community.19   

Freedom of association is another Charter right for religious communities.  The Supreme Court of Canada went out of its way in a case about a union’s right to strike to note that freedom of association is vital to freedom of religion. The court adopted this from the dissent in an earlier case:

The Court has also found that freedom of religion is not merely a right to hold religious opinions but also an individual right to establish communities of faith (see Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 S.C.R. 567).  And while this Court has not dealt with the issue, there is support for the view that “the autonomous existence of religious communities is indispensable for pluralism in a democratic society and is thus an issue at the very heart of the protection” of freedom of religion (Hutterian Brethren, at para. 131, per Abella J., dissenting [citations removed].20


The TWU Community Covenant is vital to the creation of community, and it is an expression of identity.  Both are consistent with the university’s mission and purpose.  It has also been vital to the success of the university and its thousands of graduates who serve with distinction in many fields and professions throughout Canada and around the world.  A fair reading of the Community Covenant should lead to the conclusion that it is not a threat or danger, but a reasonable support for building and maintaining the diversity we all desire for Canadian society. 

  1. S.B.C. 1969, c. 44, s. 3(2)
  2. An Act to Amend the Trinity Western College Act, S.B.C., c. 63
  3. Student Handbook, “Accepting the Invitation” (the entire Student
    Handbook can be found here: 
  4. Community Covenant, section 1 (the entire Community Covenant can
    be found here:
  5. Community Covenant, section 5
  6. Community Covenant, section 2
  7. Community Covenant, section 1
  8. See an article about the event, and a video here:
    news/2015/013-  building-bridges.html 
  9. Community Covenant, section 4
  10. Community Covenant, section 3 
  11. Community Covenant, section 4
  12. Student Handbook, “The Goal of the Accountability Process”
  13. Student Handbook, “Accountability Procedures”
  14. Loyola High School v. Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12
  15. Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16
  16. Paras. 132 and 133, Loyola, infra, and para. 68, Saguenay, infra
  17. Para. 44 Loyola, infra, and para. Saguenay, infra
  18. Saguenay, infra, at paras. 74 and 75
  19.  Loyola, infra, at paras. 92-96
  20.  Mounted Police Association of Ontario v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 1, at para. 64