Report on the 2017 Christian Legal Institute

By Paulina Lee, J.D. candidate (Western Law) and CLF law student intern

It was the most empowering, challenging and thought-provoking week of my life. I learned about faith and legal practice integration, how to be an advocate for social and political justice, and what it looks like to walk humbly and serve faithfully as a Christian in the vocation of law. It was truly life-changing and I now know what I need to do!"
 “An incredibly life-changing transformative experience. I was so blessed by this conference and will be recommending to all those who are interested or in law school.”
Extremely convicting sessions that have really been changing my stances and viewpoints. I very much appreciate everything I’ve been learning.”

-Students’ comments after CLI 2017

Five days, 18 speakers, 24 attendees, and countless conversations (and donuts) – CLI 2017 proved to be yet another unforgettable experience. Frankly, I did not set my expectations high for the week of CLI. I was still recovering from post-finals exhaustion and, having been to CLI 2016, I knew that the week would be both mentally and spiritually intense – challenging, stimulating, thought-provoking, all of the above. Indeed, the week was all that, and more. First and foremost, the 2017 CLI felt different from last year’s, not so much because the program itself had changed but because I had.

1L was a difficult year for me. It was the first time since high school that I had fundamentally questioned my faith, wondering whether the claims of the Bible could stand up against the secularism that seemed to govern every part of law and society. Attending the 2016 CLI after 1L was like taking a (long) breath of fresh air. I learned what it means to hold a worldview, particularly a Christian worldview, within which lens the law and faith can be reconciled. It was at that conference that I not only reaffirmed my faith but began to develop an understanding for what it means to be a Christian advocate, both as an identity and a mission. Life-changing stuff, to say the least.

Through attending the CLI this time around, I realized that in 2L I had become complacent in my faith. With 1L over with and as the CLF president at Western, I figured I’d best focus my efforts on building friendships in hopes to start conversations on faith and the law. What may have begun as pure, the motive to make friends was quickly overcome by my own desire for acceptance and validation; unfortunately, the fear of being labelled or stereotyped often precluded me from being a voice of truth. But at the conference, I was convicted by Romans 12:2a, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” My experience at this year’s CLI is a testament to God’s power to transform a person’s heart through the “renewal of the mind”, when he or she submits to the Lordship of Christ and trusts Him. I only hope that I hold onto all I have received and act on it.

Upon my arrival, I was welcomed by some familiar but mostly new faces. Students from all over the country attended, including law students from Western, Osgoode Hall and the universities of Calgary, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Ottawa and Toronto. It was amazing to see that although we were from different regions, ethnic backgrounds, and of varying ages and life experiences, we were united in one body as children of God and by our desire to know Christ. What a great reminder to have at the start of the conference!

The theme for Day One was “Worldview and Foundations of Law”. Ruth Ross kick-started the conference with her presentation on the question, “What is Truth?”, followed by Dr. Joe Boot’s commentary on the connection between worldview and the law, and Derek Ross’s on morality and law. Ruth emphasized the importance of remembering that all phenomena is observed through a particular lens or worldview. The Christian worldview is shaped by the Bible; Christians also believe that the Bible is not merely a worldview but the Truth, namely the Word of Christ Himself. While the Christian worldview is one of many, it is also important to recognize that secular humanism that underpins almost all of contemporary culture is also a worldview. This indicates that the interpretation of the law by the courts is not neutral. Dr. Joe Boot suggested that all of life is religious because all people hold an ethos. Along this reasoning, Derek Ross depicted law itself as a comprehensive doctrine that promotes a particular conception of “the good”, particularly as expressed through “Charter values”. If so, the question is not whether law is void of morality but whose morality will prevail. While secularism has taken front and centre stage in Canadian law, Christian advocates are to develop a sound and robust biblical worldview by which they can critically examine and, when necessary, challenge status quo interpretations of the law that are unjust.

On the second day, we explored the fundamental freedoms of conscience, religion, and expression. Dr. Joe Boot began by reminding us of the biblical concept of freedom in reference to John 8:32, “The Truth [Christ] shall set you free.” Personal, societal, and political freedom are all found in the person Christ. Derek Ross, Deina Warren, and André Schutten then presented the issues and arguments surrounding several ongoing cases such as: ET v Hamilton District School Board which concerns the reasonableness of a school board’s denial for a Christian parent to remove his children from certain classes that offend his religious belief; and the Trinity Western University (TWU) litigation reviewing the decisions of BC, Ontario, and Nova Scotia’s law societies on the approval of TWU’s law school.

On days three and four, we continued to explore controversial topics such as the sanctity of life as it pertains to euthanasia and abortion and family, marriage, and sexuality. Joe Boot’s talk on “Christ and Culture” (Colossians 1) exposited the word “culture” which comes from the Latin word for “worship”. Culture is essentially an expression of what society worships. The original or intended culture at the time of creation was to revolve around God but according to Romans 1, man traded the worship of the Creator for created things. However, in Christ, God made a way for the restoration of true culture possible. Christ, then, however discouraging the present circumstances may be, gives us reason to hope.

Although there was a lot of content to digest, one thing I really appreciated was the flow of themes from one day to the next; everything tied in nicely together so that by the last day of the Institute, you could see a complete big picture. For me, the take away this year was well summarized on the last day – live by faith, not fear. Starting with the morning devotional by Pastor Sean Sheeran, we were reminded of Jesus’ words to His disciples in the middle of the storm. As He stood upon the waters, Jesus said to them, “It is I [AM]; don’t be afraid” (John 6:16-20). Amidst all our personal storms and as the body of Christ, Christ Himself is there, above it all. He says to each one of us and all of us together, “I, the God who is and has always been, am with you. What do you have to fear?” The confirmation of the Almighty God being with us should spur us to move, act, and witness in the public sphere.

Dr. Joe Boot admonished us not to demarcate the private from the public sphere by limiting our faith to our homes and churches – rather we have a duty as Christ’s witnesses to seek God’s greater kingdom in all and every part of our life, including our social life. While this is difficult, and perhaps controversial as are all things political, Dr. Jeff Ventrella pointed us back to the Word, to the example of Daniel, of how to live as God’s people in a secular world. We are to use all that God has uniquely gifted us with to advance His kingdom. He has equipped us sufficiently to live faithfully. We are to look upward, outward, and forward, rather than to ourselves, in order to lead a truly thriving and fulfilled life in Him.

By the end of the conference I felt as if I had gone up the mountain and spent five days with Jesus and now had to trek back down to my familiar yet often stormy reality. But I hold to the lordship of Christ and the sufficiency of the gospel in any and every situation; the same Jesus who was with me on the mountain top is with me here, in my home and in my school. May I not be afraid to shine this light of Christ, for Christ is able, sufficient, and, above all, worthy of my heart and worship.