This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Longhurst: Controversy defused

It was big news in Canada when the Supreme Court denied an appeal by Trinity Western University to have a decision against its law school overturned because of the university’s stance against homosexuality.

John Longhurst

It was even bigger news when the school — the country’s premier evangelical university — made a change to that stance.

In June, the Court ruled that the law societies of British Columbia and Ontario could refuse to accredit TWU’s proposed law school because of its community covenant.

The chief objection by the societies was how all students were required to sign the covenant, which included a provision that students “abstain” from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”

In making the ruling, the Court agreed with the societies that the covenant discriminated against LGBTQ students.

For many Christians in Canada, the decision was evidence of how the standing of the church in Canada has changed, as well as a blow against religious liberty.

They didn’t have long to think about it. In August, TWU did something unexpected that changed the conversation when it decided to make signing the covenant voluntary for students.

In an interview with Faith Today, Canada’s leading evangelical publication, TWU President Bob Kuhn emphasized that the covenant itself had not been changed — it still exists, and faculty and staff have to sign it annually.

By making it voluntary for students, he stated, the school was clarifying that it “does not discriminate in terms of enrollment for any person from any belief or any LGBTQ or other group.”

He went on to say something that also caught some people by surprise: TWU already has LGBTQ students, and many of them say they feel “welcome and embraced and supported” at the school.

They also say it is easier to come out as gay at TWU than at public universities — also quite a statement for him to make.

After hearing Kuhn’s comments, I immediately wondered about the reaction. Would donors cease giving? After all, that’s what happened four years ago in the U.S. when World Vision USA announced it was changing a policy related to LGBTQ.

If you recall that experience, in 2014 World Vision USA decided to alter its employee conduct manual to recognize same-sex marriage as being within the norms of “abstinence before marriage and fidelity in marriage.”

Then-president Richard Stearns explained to the U.S. evangelical magazine Christianity Today that the organization was not endorsing gay marriage. Instead, he said, World Vision was simply recognizing that gay marriage was like other issues churches that support it disagree on — things like divorce, remarriage, modes of baptism, female clergy.

By changing the policy, they were just making it “more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues,” he said.

In response, about 5,000 child sponsors canceled their donations, a loss of over $1.2 million for the organization. Major evangelical leaders in the U.S. also loudly criticized the move.

Within two days, World Vision USA reversed course.

Would something similar happen to TWU? I contacted them to ask.

According to James Tweedy, TWU’s director of marketing, “we haven’t experienced a negative impact on donations. In fact both donations and enrollment continue to be stronger than in prior years.”

Overall, he added, “the response has been largely positive,” although he acknowledged there have been some criticisms based on the mistaken belief the school has eliminated its covenant.

Thinking about the TWU experience makes me wonder if there aren’t some lessons for other church-related organizations facing a similar challenge.

Today, many church-related organizations find themselves in a difficult place. They know they need to modify policies about LGBTQ issues, or face losing a younger generation — their future supporters — that is generally more open to gay relationships.

But they worry if they do, then their older donors — the ones who donate the most and keep them afloat today — will stop giving.

Maybe the TWU experience shows those fears are overblown. If a thoroughly evangelical school like TWU can modify its stance, perhaps other church-related organizations can do it, too.

Of course, evangelicals in Canada are different from their counterparts in the U.S.; the TWU experience might not travel across the border. But perhaps it’s a sign that positions in the evangelical community on the LGBTQ issue are not as hard today as some fear.

John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

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