Trinity Western students won't have to sign covenant banning sex outside straight marriage

Students at Trinity Western University will no longer have to sign an agreement promising to abstain from all sex outside of heterosexual marriage, but faculty and staff will still be bound by the school's restrictive covenant.

Change will come into effect beginning this school year, but faculty and staff will still have to sign

Staff and faculty at Trinity Western University will still have to sign the strict community covenant, but it's now optional for students. (CBC)

Students at Trinity Western University will no longer have to sign an agreement promising to abstain from all sex outside of heterosexual marriage.

The board of governors for the evangelical Christian university in Langley, B.C., voted on a motion Thursday to make the strict community covenant optional for students.

The motion said the change was made "in furtherance of our desire to maintain TWU as a thriving community of Christian believers that is inclusive of all students wishing to learn from a Christian viewpoint and underlying philosophy."

The change will come into effect beginning in the 2018-2019 school year, and applies to new and continuing students. 

But faculty, staff and administrators will still have to sign the restrictive covenant, a school spokesperson confirmed.

'I learned not to trust my heart'

The covenant binds students, staff and faculty to a code of conduct that includes abstinence from "sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman."

Megan Jespersen, who graduated from TWU in 2005, said her hands were shaking with excitement when she heard the covenant would no longer be mandatory for students. She didn't realize she was queer when she entered university as a 20-year-old, and says the agreement just amplified the shame she felt as she came to terms with that identity.

"What it created within me was a mistrust of my own heart," Jespersen said. "That was one of the most traumatizing parts of that whole experience for me. I learned not to trust my heart because I felt that my heart was betraying me."

But the thrill she experienced when she heard Tuesday's news was tempered when she learned that faculty and staff would still have to sign the covenant.

"I really have no words for that," she said. "That is not good enough when you're not engaging the entire Trinity community."

Students walk past a cross on campus at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

In a written statement, TWU president Bob Kuhn said the school will continue to be a "Christ-centred" facility.

"Let there be no confusion regarding the board of governors' resolution; our mission remains the same. We will remain a Biblically-based, mission-focused, academically excellent university, fully committed to our foundational evangelical Christian principles," Kuhn said.

Supreme Court battle

The covenant was at the centre of a long legal battle over TWU's plans for a law school.

The law school was granted preliminary approval by the B.C. government in 2013, but that was later withdrawn in the face of legal challenges.

In June, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that provincial law societies have the power to refuse accreditation for the school, saying the covenant would deter LGBTQ students from attending.

The majority judgment said that LGBTQ students who attended a TWU law school would be at risk of significant harm.

The case went to the top court after the law societies of B.C., Ontario and Nova Scotia had all refused to accredit graduates of the school, saying the covenant discriminates against LGBT students.

In B.C. and Nova Scotia, courts had sided with TWU, ruling the university has the right to act on its beliefs as long as there is no evidence of harm.

Ontario's Court of Appeal ruled the other way, calling the covenant "deeply discriminatory to the LGBT community."

Victoria lawyer Michael Mulligan, who pushed for a special vote to overturn the B.C. Law Society's original decision to accredit TWU, called Tuesday's news "a very positive move."

But he said that if teachers and staff at the proposed law school are still required to sign the covenant, accreditation could still be an issue.

"To the extent that the university would still wish to fire or discipline staff members for being involved in consensual same-sex relationships, they may still have a serious issue about whether it would be in the public interest to grant them approval," Mulligan told CBC News. 

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Reach me at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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