2018 CLF National Conference Report
With the aid of a sponsorship from the CLF, I recently attended its 2018 National Conference, held from September 26 to 30 in New Westminster, British Columbia.
As those of you who I met at the Conference will be aware, I am a person with a physical disability. Although I achieved the goal of being called to the Bar of British Columbia in 2017, the path to achieving it was beset by innumerable obstacles connected to that disability.
The time since has been a trying one, in which I have encountered barriers even more difficult to surmount. Soon, I will have to determine whether it is viable to continue pursuing a legal career.
It is within this context that the CLF recently came to my attention. I learned of the organization’s active role in constitutional law and the defence of religious liberty, for which I am deeply passionate and have an intense desire to be personally engaged.
I discovered that the National Conference was to be held only a matter of weeks later, less than 30 kilometres from where I live.
I attempted to register, but the cost was well beyond what I could afford. For that reason, I requested an accommodation, and received the sponsorship that allowed me to attend, with my mother joining me as my assistant.
That sponsorship truly was a blessing.
For me, the Conference was an unfamiliar and yet greatly uplifting experience: to be surrounded and warmly received by lawyers with whom I share a common faith and worldview. In my mother’s words, it was an “oasis”.
I gained many valuable insights from the impressive roster of speakers assembled for the Conference, such as the tracing of equality rights back to the powerful and timeless words of Paul in his epistle to the Galatians in Galatians 3:28 (ESV, emphasis added):
“[t]here is neither Jew nor Greek …
neither slave nor free …
neither male and female …
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This reflected two key Biblically inspired themes which ran throughout the Conference: the sanctity of human life and the equal dignity of all people as created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).
I was born with a congenital and life-threatening medical disorder. I cannot help but be personally acquainted with the importance of these truths, and the consequences of encountering people who fail to embrace them. Especially when they happen to be lawyers.
It is with that life experience in mind that I felt so blessed to be among lawyers that not only understand these truths, but who fight for them, in the courts and the corridors of power.
The Conference began with the Opening Address from former Supreme Court of Canada Justice John Major, who discussed the decline of stare decisis in Canadian law, a disconcerting trend for a common law society in which justice depends on the solid foundation of precedent to treat like situations alike.
This trend is reflected in the disturbing ease with which the SCC recently swept aside its judgment in Trinity Western University v College of Teachers (“BCCT”), which I discuss in more detail below.
In the Faith and Politics Panel, Members of Parliament Elizabeth May and Garnett Genuis demonstrated how elected officials of differing parties and theological perspectives can work together respectfully without compromising what they believe in. They gave helpful examples on common ground issues, demonstrating how respect for the freedoms of religion and conscience ought to transcend partisan divisions.
In Christian Perspectives on Law (and Why They Matter), Dean Robert Vischer contrasted the utilitarian view of the value of human life and the Christian view: that all human life is sacred. As an illustration, he referenced Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ reasons in the 1927 Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) judgment in Buck v Bell (“Buck”), which upheld a statute authorizing the forced sterilization of mental institution patients “with hereditary forms of insanity, imbecility, [etc]”.
The American Declaration of Independence famously proclaimed it a “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal”. In Buck, a judgment of America’s highest court, Justice Holmes proclaimed it “better for all the world … if society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” Seventy years earlier, in Dred Scott v Sandford, the same court declared freed African-American slaves and their descendants excluded from citizenship, a judgment undone only through the “mighty scourge of war” and the subsequent adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment.
As Christians, we should resist the temptation to reach back longingly for an idealized past. To borrow Dean Vischer’s expression, “there are no good old days.”
The session on Christianity and Diversity, featuring Dean Vischer, Stephen Hsia, and Shawn Knights, emphasized the centrality of equal human dignity to Christian teachings. In Christian Approaches to Indigenous Rights and Reconciliation, Professor Dwight Newman built on this theme, underlining the inconvenient truth that previous generations distorted Christianity to justify subjugating Canada’s original peoples.
In Religious Freedom in Canada: A Coast to Coast Update: Deina Warren and Derek Ross outlined recent religious freedom jurisprudence, revealing a trend toward viewing religion as harmful, and André Schutten reviewed recent legal developments concerning family law in Ontario. Also referenced was ET v Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, an Ontario Court of Appeal decision likely to be of national significance. In the majority opinion, Justice Lauwers declared that “[t]here is really no dispute about the existence of [parents’] right … to a measure of control over the moral and religious education of their children.”
In Civility and Advocacy Post-Groia, the Hon. Justice Paul R. Jeffrey of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench discussed the SCC’s recent decision in Groia v Law Society of Upper Canada, in which the Court overturned a law society finding of professional misconduct in relation to uncivil behaviour in the courtroom.
The theme of civility was echoed in How to be a Christian Witness in a Fear-Driven Culture. Dean Vischer addressed how fear has fueled the polarization of American society to emphasize the importance of “civil respect” and a willingness to listen. He referenced Romans 12 (ESV), which includes commands
to “[b]less those who persecute you” …
to “[n]ot be haughty, but associate with the lowly” …
to “[n]ever be wise in your own sight” …
to “live peaceably with all” …
and to “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Of particular interest to me was The TWU Decision: Implications for CharterFreedoms in Canada, a panel session which included Kevin Boonstra, Gwendoline Allison and Derek Ross, each of whom either represented or intervened in support of Trinity Western University in the SCC’s 2018 Law Society decisions (2018). These cases departed from the aforementioned BCCT case (decided in 2001).
All three decisions concerned the rejection of TWU professional education programs by professional regulatory bodies, due to a religiously informed requirement that TWU students refrain from, among others, sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage.
TWU prevailed in the 2001 BCCT case but lost in 2018 in the Law Society cases.
In BCCT, the SCC majority upheld the court order requiring approval of TWU’s Teacher Education Program. They acknowledged that TWU is an institution designed to “address the needs of people who share … religious convictions,” and is “not for everybody”. They also noted that Canadian diversity is reflected by the “multiple religious organizations that mark the societal landscape”, asserting that “this diversity of views should be respected.”
In the Law Society cases, the majority held that the rejection of TWU’s law school was valid under the Doré/Loyola framework, which merely requires a “proportionate balancing” of Charter protections and the relevant statutory mandate to justify administrative decisions that infringe on Charter rights. The rejection of the law school was said to meet this balance. The infringement of religious freedom was deemed “of minor significance” because the TWU Community Covenant was “not absolutely required for the religious practice at issue.”
The contrast between BCCTand the Law Societycases puts into clear focus the drift in the Court’s view of religion. The former reflected a view not of opprobrium, but respect.
The Euthanasia Update: End-of Life Care and the Law, featuring Mary Anne Waldron, QC, Robert Reynolds, and Derek Ross, carried forward the theme of the sanctity of life, discussing the importance of CLF’s ongoing role in litigation concerning assisted suicide and conscience rights. For example, CLF intervened in the Ontario Superior Court in Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada v College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario in support of a constitutional challenge by Christian doctors against a requirement to provide effective referrals for assisted suicide. The decision is being appealed and CLF has been granted leave to intervene at the Ontario Court of Appeal, jointly with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario. CLF and the EFC are also seeking intervener status in the British Columbia case of Lamb v Canada (Attorney General), to support existing restrictions on assisted suicide.
Although I personally have mixed feelings in relation to the personal autonomy aspect of this issue, I agree that it is essential to defend the freedom of religion and conscience of medical professionals and to prevent the expansion of assisted suicide from sending our country sliding downward toward a utilitarian view of human life referred to by Dean Vischer earlier in the Conference’s proceedings.
In the concluding speech of the Conference, We Were Royal Refugees, Pastor Chris Karuhije shared his personal account of escaping a country in which the central truths of the Conference’s proceedings had been utterly discarded. Pastor Karuhjie described Rwanda’s descent from ethnic hatred into the deepest depths of evil: a genocide in which civilians engaged in the wholesale slaughter of their neighbours. He also shared the inspiring story of how his Anglican priest father fearlessly returned and made the ultimate sacrifice in a selfless bid to defend his people, and how his family began a new and better life in Canada.
Thank you again to CLF for allowing me to attend, and for the warmness with which you have welcomed me.
I hope to continue in this Fellowship. To have a continued place at its table, both figuratively and literally. To utilize my talents in the service of its righteous cause, however God wills. To realize whatever good purpose He would have for me within it.
Although this was my first CLF event, with hope, it will not be my last.
*Brandon Langhjelm is a recently called British Columbia lawyer with a strong interest in criminal and constitutional law. He is a graduate of the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia (BA, History Major), and of the University of British Columbia Faculty of Law in Vancouver (JD). He completed articles with the Department of Justice Canada in Vancouver.