Hamilton·Exclusive

Private Christian university says no sex outside heterosexual marriage. LGBTQ alumni say that discriminates

A private Christian university in the Hamilton area is facing criticism from former students who say its policies are anti-LGBTQ and created a culture of fear among LGBTQ attendees.

School forbids sexual intimacy outside 'biblical intentions' of heterosexual marriage

Redeemer University, a private Christian university in Hamilton, Ont., is facing criticism from former students who say the school's policies discriminate against LGBTQ people. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Within a year of starting school at Redeemer University, Lauren Druif wanted out.

As a queer student, she knew there was a risk of being an outcast at the private Christian school in Ancaster, a suburban area of Hamilton, Ont.

But a school policy that says students will be disciplined for any sexual behaviour that occurs outside a heterosexual marriage, based on what Redeemer calls "biblical intentions," made her feel like an outsider. 

"That was a huge influence on the final decision to leave.... I can't think of anything other than discrimination to call it," said 22-year-old Druif of Acton, Ont., who left the school in 2016.

CBC has spoken to a number of Redeemer students, past and present. Some did not want to speak on the record for fear of reprisal from the university or because they hadn't publicly revealed their sexual orientation, but all of them expressed concerns about a school policy they say discriminates against LGBTQ students.

The school says the policy is part of the Reformed Christian tradition and does not discriminate.

Druif's sentiments were also echoed in the Rainbow Report, an internal document submitted to the school last year with LGBTQ alumni reflections of their time on campus and what they described as an unwelcoming climate for LGBTQ students.

Policy covers 'broad range' of behaviour

According to the school's Student Conduct and Accountability Policy, obtained by CBC, Redemeer disciplines students for what it refers to as "sexual misconduct."

"This covers a broad range of sexual behaviour by students when it falls outside biblical intentions and/or explicit guidelines. These include sexual intimacies which occur outside of a heterosexual marriage, including any type of intercourse or sexual relations or involvement with pornographic material," the policy says.

It's unclear how the school would discipline a student if it received a complaint, but in general, punishments range from warnings to fines to suspension and expulsion. School policies also apply beyond campus.

Before 2013, the school's standards of conduct didn't allow what it called "homosexual practice."

Same-sex marriage became legal in Canada in 2005.

Policies of public universities like the University of Toronto and McMaster University only pertain to sexual violence and sexual harassment, not consensual sex between two people.

The private Christian school also receives government money through grants. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Human rights experts told CBC they see Redeemer's policy as discriminatory and that it could be challenged in court.

Redeemer University declined multiple interview requests, but president Robert Graham responded to questions with an email.

"All people, including LGBTQ people, are created in the image of God and therefore deserve to be treated with dignity, love and respect. Redeemer condemns violence, harassment and intimidation," he wrote.

"As an institution based in the Reformed Christian tradition, we believe that all people are sinful and that this affects everyone's sexuality and relationships. The tradition also includes the understanding that Christian marriage is between a man and a woman and that sexual intimacy is reserved for a marital relationship."

He said that the Ontario Human Rights Code, specifically, sections 18 and 24, protects Redeemer's right to operate in accordance with its religious beliefs.

"What some refer to as discrimination is, in fact, freedom of association, which is protected by the law and is a core Canadian value," Graham said.

Debates about the rules in religious universities are not new. Trinity Western University in British Columbia tried, and failed, to create a law school with a similar rule. It was a battle between LGBTQ rights and religious freedom, which saw the Supreme Court of Canada rule that the law societies of British Columbia and Ontario have the power to refuse accreditation based on Trinity Western's policy.

In Redeemer's case, human rights experts say the policy could lead to lawsuits and human rights complaints.

Toronto lawyer Susan Ursel says Redeemer University's policy discriminates against LGBTQ people and also anyone who is unmarried. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

"They're not discriminating against [students] because they're Christian, they're discriminating against them because they're LGBTQ by this code of conduct," Susan Ursel, the Toronto lawyer who represented the Canadian Bar Association against Trinity Western, told CBC.

"You can discriminate on the basis of only wanting Christians, sure, but once you're inside your Christian community, you don't get to pick and choose whether you like people who are gay or straight. You take your community the way you find it and you serve it."

Christopher Karas, a paralegal and human rights activist, said if challenged, Redeemer's policy would likely have to change.

"The courts have generally held that religious rights are institutional rights whereas sexual orientation and gender are individual rights, which supersede religious rights," he told CBC.

'I lived daily in fear'

The Rainbow Report, a 45-page document submitted to the university in 2019, features personal accounts from students and alumni, many of whom identify within the LGBTQ community.

The report is full of reflections that describe living in a culture of fear and shame. Many say they didn't feel safe on campus and some left school before graduation.

"My years at Redeemer, and especially those two when I lived on campus, were marked with guilt and fear! I felt guilty that I wasn't straight ... I lived daily in fear. I was afraid that someone would catch my eyes wandering," reads one submission. 

Another person wrote: "Redeemer was the strongest and most painful experience of silent and submersive deconstruction, for me, and for many of my friends."

One more reflection read: "So much fear. So many thoughts of being broken ... all because I signed a piece of paper making me fear expulsion and therefore being outed before I even knew where I stood with regards to faith and sexuality." 

The document also includes recommendations from some students about how the school can improve. Some say the Bible can be interpreted to accept LGBTQ intimacy while others say the institution and staff should be more open about having constructive conversations.

Abby Terpstra-Paterson contributed to the Rainbow Report. She graduated from Redeemer University in 2001 and said seeing anti-LGBTQ policies wasn't shocking back then.

"The fact that it's still 20 years later and it hasn't changed, that's alarming to me. I now have children who are looking at going to college and university and I would never send them [to Redeemer] now," the 40-year-old Mississauga, Ont., resident told CBC.

While Redeemer did receive the report, it's unclear what the school did with it.

In his responses to CBC, Graham did not mention the report specifically. He did say undergraduate programs are only open to students who share the school's beliefs. He also maintained that incoming students must sign a form that they understand the policies before joining the school.

Redeemer University president Robert Graham told CBC News the school offers a valuable option for students who want a university education from a Christian perspective, and having that option adds diversity to Ontario's post-secondary education landscape. (Redeemer University)

He said the school has a Sexuality and Gender Awareness group on campus run by a hired external counselling agency. It's unclear what the purpose of the group is.

"No Redeemer student has ever been expelled or suspended because of their sexual orientation and Redeemer University's policies would not permit such," Graham wrote. 

"Redeemer recognizes that Christians also struggle with issues of sexuality and identity, and is committed to walking with all who desire to be part of its community as shaped by its beliefs and policies."

Some submissions in the Rainbow Report note that the school is trying to be more progressive.

"The air about Redeemer is changing, it's growing and it should absolutely continue to do so. But we absolutely need to make sure that Redeemer is equipped to actually help nurture the people who are coming to study in its halls, not continue to make them feel isolated and hurt," one person wrote

Students have a choice to attend, but it isn't simple

LGBTQ students in the report also explain why some of them stayed at Redeemer despite knowing a private Christian school may harbour resistance to being LGBTQ. The report indicates many students attended because their family forced them to and that leaving for another school wasn't always possible.

Older alumni said many start school at 17 or 18 years of age and still haven't revealed their sexual orientation or gender identity to loved ones, let alone strangers. University and college years can also be when many might start exploring their sexuality or gender.

LGBTQ students at Redeemer say they felt unwelcome and unsafe on campus. (Mktp/Flickr)

"I will get angry about those comments until the day I die because as [LGBTQ] people, we agree to things all the time in order to protect ourselves so people don't look at us sideways, so that people don't push us out of the one thing we want so badly, which is a community. We want to be loved," Druif said.

"A lot of us grew up loving our churches, loving the people who raised us in a church and loving these people who are saying these things about us and that hurts so bad."

Redeemer receives taxpayer money

Redeemer doesn't receive government operating funding like a public university does, and must rely on donations.

But it can still access taxpayer money through grants and funds. 

Human rights experts say the government giving money to a school found to discriminate would contravene the Canadian Human Rights Act and potentially the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

According to the school website, the largest single sum of government money Redeemer ever received was $2.9 million for infrastructure projects in 2009 through the Knowledge Infrastructure Program by the federal government.

The school has also received money through other federal government programs.

Between 2003 and 2019, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) awarded faculty members $577,000 for research.

The most recent grant avenue has netted a total of $336,312 between 2013 and 2021 from the Research Support Fund. That money comes from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Redeemer University's website shows how much money it has earned from the Research Support Fund of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. It adds up to $336,312. (Redeemer University)

Both SSHRC and NSERC are overseen by the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Industry.

The office of Minister Navdeep Bains declined multiple requests for comment or interview.

When asked about whether it would be appropriate for taxpayer money to go to a private religious institution that had policies found to be discriminatory, Dominique Bérubé, vice-president of programs at SSHRC, said there was an "obvious answer," but explained that the fund's eligibility criteria doesn't review a school's policies, giving them "no leverage to assess that question."

"This is a fair question that needs to be addressed," she said. "Discrimination against LGBTQ groups is a critical issue."

At least two other schools with similar policies to Redeemer University (Tyndale University in Toronto and Ambrose University in Calgary) also receive money from the fund.

The majority of the SSHRC money Redeemer received went toward paying administrative salaries and lab maintenance tied to the research in each grant application.

"The question for decision makers in our courts is, 'Can religion do anything it wants? Or in a decent, multicultural, diverse society, are there even limits on what religion can do?' " Ursel said.

Corrections

  • A previous version of the article incorrectly stated Christopher Karas is a human rights lawyer. He's actually a paralegal.
    Aug 04, 2020 11:59 AM ET

About the Author

Bobby Hristova

Reporter/Editor

Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca

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