Are religious schools like BYU at risk of losing accreditation over same-sex marriage?

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Last week, a superior court in the province of Ontario upheld a decision allowing the Law Society of Upper Canada to deny accreditation to a Christian law school, on the grounds that its Community Covenant, which requires abstention from sex outside (husband-wife) marriage, is a violation of the rights of gay and lesbian students. Trinity Western University, the third oldest university in British Columbia, has found little sympathy among the Canadian public and political class, and is unlikely to win any future legal appeals. The school’s administration has signalled that, if forced, it will cancel the opening of the law school rather than alter the Community Covenant.

While the decision applies to an ecumenical Christian institution in Canada, the significance for American Mormons is straightforward: the sexual standards in the Honor Code at Brigham Young University are virtually identical to those in Trinity Western’s Community Covenant. Is it possible, a Latter-day Saint might reasonably wonder, that in a decade or so BYU will find its own accreditation threatened amidst the legal aftershocks of same-sex marriage?

In the balance of considerations that can be weighed while guessing the likelihood of a threat to BYU’s accreditation (or tax-exempt status), there’s a major one on the side of optimism: the fact that of any country in the world, the United States has the most robust tradition of religious liberty. As a result, the Canadian decision on TWU is not necessarily a ten-year warning bell for BYU. But there are other facts to consider:

  1. The Canadian decision did acknowledge the religious liberty interest of the university in establishing religious standards as a way of promoting the “collective practice” of Protestant Christianity. Its decision was simply that the sexual liberty of gay and lesbian students—framed in the decision as non-discrimination—was more important.
  2. Similar reasoning is being used more and more often in US decisions. So far it has only been applied to religious individuals and businesses. The line between religious businesses and schools has been blurred before in discrimination cases, however, as when the Supreme Court stripped Bob Jones University of its tax-exempt status in 1983.
  3. Conservatives in Canada in 2005 were assured that legal same-sex marriage would not lead to religious liberty conflicts, so present assurances that US law won’t allow threats to accreditation are hard to interpret as permanent.
  4. Accreditation is granted by quasi-private bodies. The council that accredits BYU acts under the regulatory authority of the Department of Education, but is probably not bound as strictly by the First Amendment as a government actor would be.
  5. As of last month, marriage to someone of the same sex is a fundamental constitutional right in the United States, and the weights of jurisprudence are likely to shift as a result. It’s unclear whether the First Amendment automatically beats the Fourteenth in conflict, especially as the cultural climate becomes more secular by the year.

When confronted with these kinds of scenarios, there are two canonical (and contradictory) responses among Mormons who support same-sex marriage: denial and approval. Rod Dreher, in a more generally Christian context, named the phenomenon:

The Law Of Merited Impossibility is an epistemological construct governing the paradoxical way overclass opinion makers frame the discourse about the clash between religious liberty and gay civil rights. It is best summed up by the phrase, “It’s a complete absurdity to believe that Christians will suffer a single thing from the expansion of gay rights, and boy, do they deserve what they’re going to get.”

While Dreher’s point is made partly for snark’s sake, it should hit close to home in the online Mormon world. More than that, the point matters quite a bit, because the way that American Mormons approach the question of religious freedom could affect the ability of institutions like BYU to operate freely in the coming years and decades.

In April, Elder Hales, speaking at General Conference, left little room for either half of Dreher’s law. In response to those who deny that the space for religious exercise is shrinking:

The general lack of respect for religious viewpoints is quickly devolving into social and political intolerance for religious people and institutions.

As we face increased pressure to bow to secular standards, forfeit our religious liberties, and compromise our agency, consider what the Book of Mormon teaches about our responsibilities.

And to those who don’t mind the encroachment, he insists that it is the duty of Latter-day Saints to push back:

Brothers and sisters, we are responsible to safeguard these sacred freedoms and rights for ourselves and our posterity. …

[I]n your individual capacity, join with others who share our commitment to religious freedom. Work side by side to protect religious freedom.

This is the same narrative that church leaders have been telling at least since 1995, when The Family: A Proclamation to the World was announced in General Conference.

It’s worth acknowledging that, for more skeptical listeners, this language can come across hyperbolic. After all, it’s true that we are manifestly free from fear of persecution in our daily lives as Mormons, at least in most countries where members live. But it’s not enough to point out, as is so often pointed out, that the chance of clergy being forced to perform same-sex ceremonies is remote. This is the most obvious hypothetical conflict of same-sex marriage and religious liberty to come to mind, and maybe the subject of the shrillest paranoia from some members. But it would be a mistake to let it obscure the many realistic ways that the scope of religious exercise could be threatened in the coming years. Among these, the institutional marginalization of BYU is one possibility. Threats to religious tax exemptions could be next in line.

The reason, I think, for denial of the danger on the one hand and apathy on the other is a misunderstanding of what same-sex marriage really means. The degendering of marriage must eventually affect everyone because it both represents and affirms a novel worldview, one in which men and women are interchangeable, human relationships are ordered toward sex and the individual’s identity is authoritative in legal matters. Same-sex marriage lies along the road that was paved by no-fault divorce, premarital sex and legal elective abortion, and other signposts are now appearing ahead.

But regardless of whether we accept this characterization, we will likely soon be forced to accept that some of our liberties are at stake. The cultural and legal space we find ourselves occupying will be no bigger than what we decide now to claim.

Gender politics and the essence of humanity

Recent developments in the politics of gender are raising deeper questions about the continuing relevance of gender itself. This week the Alberta government presented a new birth certificate to a twelve year-old girl-by-birth who began identifying as a boy at age nine. The ‘F’ indicating sex on the child’s certificate was changed to an ‘M’.

Alberta student Wren Kauffman, who was recently given legal recognition as a male.

Alberta student Wren Kauffman, who was recently given legal recognition as a male.

Alberta has become the first province to allow such a change for children, who are not eligible for sex reassignment surgery. Court cases in other provinces seem to signal forthcoming nationwide changes in gender identity policy.

As is often the case with complicated social issues, the conspicuous effects of the policy are less important than the subtle, but broader cultural shifts that will follow it.

That is to say, social conservatives are not concerned so much about an Alberta child’s birth certificate as they are about the continued cultural significance of the words “male” and “female”. These concerns are not ludicrous given the tremendous speed of social change in the recent past, and in light of recent media conversations about gender.

In April, Global News ran the headline, “Does gender no longer work on birth certificates?” A Saskatchewan mother of a six year-old transgendered girl noted that birth certificates once listed a child’s race and father’s occupation, and argued that gender designations were just as archaic.

The question is bigger than birth certificates, however. This week, Canadian media reported that the Vancouver School Board had directed its staff to use the pronouns “xe”, “xem” and “xyr” to refer to students of ambiguous sex, or who otherwise do not wish to be called “he” or “she”.

A National Post feature last month was titled “The end of gender? North American society may be ready for more shades in between male and female”. The article quoted a University of Melbourne professor who advocates the abolition of gender itself.

The exemplars in these progreThe Kissssive visions are the minority of individuals who are transgendered or androgynous in some way. But while there are exceptions in circumstance, might it be true in principle that humans are male and female? What would a genderless society mean for our collective human identity?

The denial of the male and female has to be understood in the context of a broader trend: modernity’s tendency to abstract away from human reality for the sake of simplicity and inclusiveness. The last four hundred years have seen the effacement of man’s identity as a spiritual being, as a familial being, and even as a monogamous, heterogamous, or fruitful one. People have become “individuals”, conceived of as intellectual and physical agents and little else.

In the twenty-first century, by abstracting with even more boldness than before, we are at risk of inventing an epicene anthropology, a de-gendered image of humanity in which very few people are made.

The beauty of our civilizational self-portrait has given way to something more schematic, an image that contains no errors but misses the likeness of its subject. Which is more important—that our collective imagination of human identity (symbolized, perhaps, by a birth certificate) is broad enough to include every permutation of individual identity, or that it is deep enough to capture the essence of humanity itself?

New Group Blog: The Hustings

The HustingsI’m very excited about a brand new project! My colleague Jackson Doughart at the Prince Arthur Herald recently had the idea to start a new conservative group blog, called The Hustings, and asked me to join, along with a few others. This week we’ve put up our first entries, including one of mine. We’ve also had the incredible luck to have taken on Barbara Kay of the National Post as a contributor.

The blog takes a unique approach to online opinion writing, based on Jackson’s irritations with online blogging culture: posts will be kept to 400 words, and there will not be a comments section on the site. Readers can send in polished guest posts as responses to our brief articles that will be published at the editor’s discretion. The vision of the site is conservative (this doesn’t secretly mean libertarian), the tone is measured and the viewpoint is generally Canadian.

The site can be found at hustings.ca, and you can follow at @hustingsblog on Twitter. My plan is to post the first paragraph of my Hustings entries here on my site, along with a link. Meanwhile, I’ll continue writing longer articles for Virtuous Society, as well as for the Prince Arthur Herald. Below is a link to my first post at The Hustings:

Public policy discussions in Canada rarely revolve around aesthetics. But as an ongoing debate in Alberta shows, there is still something to be said for beauty …

[read more]

The Free Trade of Goods … And Bads

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Both Canada and Europe expect to benefit from the new free trade agreement.

Canada and the EU have made a sweeping free trade agreement, and Stephen Harper is exultant: “This is a big deal,” he told the press in Europe, after concluding the negotiations. “Indeed, this is the biggest deal our country has ever made. This is a historic win for Canada.”

The Prime Minister’s claim is barely an exaggeration. The general removal of barriers to the cross-Atlantic exchange of goods and services, or free trade, will almost certainly mean hundreds of billions of dollars to the economies of Canada and the European Union over the next few decades. There are few informed people who disagree. In fact, nearly 100% of economists support free trade.

Uncertainty surrounds free trade, however. Recent polls of Canadians find 40% who endorse free trade with Europe, 16% who oppose it and, surprisingly, around 44% of Canadians who have no opinion, perhaps because they do not fully understand what it means to have free trade. Most issues debated in government have a more transparent moral or partisan character.

Because of the economic significance of trade policy, and its relative intuitive simplicity, it is worth explaining free trade in a general way.

Every government in the world charges some level of tariffs on goods and services purchased from foreign sellers. When consumers pay tariffs on goods they import, the tariffs are normally called duties. Most tariffs, however, are levied on businesses, who pass much of the burden of the tariff on to consumers.

When a Canadian confectioner imports sugar from Latin America, for example, it may pay up to $30 per tonne of sugar in duty. Canadian shoe retailers pay up to 20% of the purchase price on footwear imported from Asia or Europe. Foreign governments likewise impose tariffs on Canadian imports.

Canada has concluded agreements to drop tariffs with 14 countries, and there are a few pending agreements that will soon take effect. The new agreement with the EU, which will be fully ratified within a few years, brings the number of such countries to 42. As part of the deal, 98% of existing tariffs between the two economies will be removed. Consumer prices will fall on a variety of goods, and sellers in each economy will have effective access to a much larger market.

The benefits of free trade are even better than low prices or more exports, however, and this is something that Stephen Harper understands.

One of the earliest insights of modern economics was that free trade nearly always leads to a total increase in wealth for all involved countries. Crucially, this is true even for countries whose productive capacity is inferior to their trading partners’ in every industry. This argument, which hinges on the principle of “comparative advantage”, is actually quite subtle, so it is best illustrated by an unrealistically simplified example.

In a hypothetical economy that involves only two countries and two goods, imagine that producers in France are able to produce both cheese and olives more cheaply than are producers in Canada. However, while the cost of growing olives in Canada is extremely high, Canadian cheese is only moderately expensive. So while it would be cheaper to produce cheese in France than in Canada, it would actually be even cheaper to both countries if France only grew olives and Canada produced only cheese. Canada would then trade some of its cheese for French olives. In this case, while France has an “absolute advantage” in both goods, Canada has a comparative advantage in cheese. By means of free trade, Canada is able to obtain its olives by producing cheese, rather than by inefficiently growing them. And because Canadians are willing to pay quite well for olives, the French are left better off as well.

The empirical and intuitive cases for free trade are strong, but there are of course reasons to oppose the policy, at least in particular circumstances. Certain Canadian industries would shrink or vanish if exposed to foreign competitors, and jobs in those industries would be lost. The dairy industry, for example, will probably see falling profits now that Canadians can buy European cheese more cheaply. This is a reason for political caution, but experience teaches us that the benefits of free trade outweigh its costs.

The unambiguous and very large benefits of free trade sometimes tempt policymakers and pundits to become over-enthusiastic, and to forget that there are important reasons to be selective in our trade policy. It is common sense that we do not, for example, liberalize the international market for handguns, explosives or non-medicinal drugs.

Perhaps one of the best publicized effects of the new free trade deal, however, is that the market for wine and spirits will be liberalized, leading to more varieties of alcohol and likely to lower prices. But while Canadians will be freer than before to indulge, we can be almost certain that more people in Canada will die as a result of lower prices, many of them teenagers (the leading preventable cause of teenage death in Canada is alcohol). The number of deaths caused by alcohol shows a surprisingly significant connection to the price of the drug. Whether we are examining drug policy or trade policy, lowering the price of alcohol should probably be our last priority.

Despite the missteps that often accompany good policy, we can be confident that a policy of free trade with Europe is sensible and well justified by experience. We can look forward to the increased prosperity that follows free and open markets. With respect to value created, the agreement may indeed be one of the most significant accomplishments of Mr. Harper’s premiership.

What do we think of death?

Large majorities in most Western countries now support legal doctor-assisted suicide. An Angus Reid poll conducted last year found that four fifths of Canadians are in favor of legal euthanasia for terminally ill patients, given certain restrictions.

There is a persuasive argument in favor of consensual killing that combines the asserted liberty of the person over his/her own body with an emotional concern for the distress felt by the terminally ill. It is the apparently self-evident answer to the rhetorical question: “Why should we prevent someone putting him/herself out of misery?”

For those who reject the rhetorical answer, it is probably not squeamishness about death that motivates their opposition to euthanasia. (I will not distinguish between euthanasia and assisted suicide for the purposes of this article.) Euthanasia was less popular in the past, at a time when far more people were familiar with death. Doctors, who witness death more often than most of us, are known to be less supportive of legalization. In fact, only a fifth of Canadian doctors report a willingness to assist in suicide.

The concern of euthanasia’s opponents is also probably not for making every effort to keep a person alive—palliative workers understand, for example, that it is best not to force dying patients to eat when they resist, having arrived naturally at the point of death. There is a more subtle explanation for the aversion to assisted killing that I will return to in a moment.

On the question of the death of terminal patients, more philosophic types might reason away the distinction between allowing (temporarily preventable) natural death and euthanasia, by appealing to some kind of utilitarianism. If the patient dies, they say, it makes no moral difference whether you caused it or allowed it to be caused by something else.

This idea is not unreasonable, in a theoretical world of utility-maximizing agents, but it is not terribly useful to us—humans are not known to act that way in life-or-death circumstances, because there is more meaning attached to death than the materially apparent.

A cancer patient on the verge of death may be equally extinguished by the physical toll of the disease or by a lethal drug, but the moral difference to the individual who pulls the trigger, so to speak, is profound. Grief in these situations is unavoidable, but how many parents would want to live knowing they had chosen the moment of their child’s death? No longer could the parent comfortably attribute to the death any transcendent significance—it was not an act of God or nature, but of human discretion.

Of the $200 billion Canadians spend on health care each year, nearly half is spent on the elderly. This is something like $3,000 for every Canadian—a large part of our gross national income. It would be easy to find justifications not to spend so much money on the aged if we did not believe that health and life were sacred; if we began consciously attaching quantitative values to lives.

I doubt that Canadians would ever begin withholding care in this way, but I am not certain that we would be able indefinitely to avoid slipping a little farther down the slope, in the same way that the Netherlands has gradually expanded the class of people who may end their lives (it now includes anyone over 12 whose situation is sufficiently “hopeless”). By allowing intentional, consensual killing in select circumstances, we would inevitably find individuals in those circumstances who would feel as if they ought to be killed, or perhaps as if others wanted them to die.

It is not difficult to imagine a sick, elderly hospice patient noticing the fatigue of his caregivers and beginning to wonder whether they would rather he died. We cannot write off as ridiculous the idea that under a new death policy, medical workers would be more likely to bring up the possibility of euthanasia, or that ambivalent patients would more often be agreeable to being killed.

If for no other reason, let us maintain our current laws for the sake of the emotional security of those who are in the majority of the very ill who do not want to die. If we must err, it may be better to err by prolonging a hundred or so lives a year, than by risking the trauma of killing some who would otherwise have been fine with living. This is not to mention the fright it would spare the elderly, or anyone else, who might (reasonably or otherwise) begin to think that a euthanizing culture does not value their lives as highly as they do.

Life remains something sacred (having transcendent value) to us. Implicit in the social norms and laws that surround death is the assumption that a human life is nearly infinite in value—“No matter what,” our law seems to signal to us, “your life will always be secured by our society and government. Even if you become temporarily hostile to your own existence we will make sure, to the extent possible, that your life does not end. We cannot risk losing a valuable life for the sake of any benefit or in the face of any particular cost.”

This sense of sanctity is why we spend billions to save the infirm and disabled, and why we proscribe euthanasia and suicide. We may find that undoing this sacredness will lead to moral disorder.

“Why should we prevent someone putting him/herself out of misery?” The question is far too easy to answer (in isolation) to be of good use to us. The reader can consider how he/she would answer the question if it were posed by his/her suicidal child, parent, or friend.

This article first appeared in the Prince Arthur Herald on October 8, 2013.

Carbon taxes in Canada: Was Stephane Dion Right?

Former Liberal Party Leader Stephane Dion was an inept politician, but a better policymaker.

Former Liberal Party Leader Stephane Dion was an inept politician, but a better policymaker.

Global climate change is a complicated study for scientists. Modern climate models evaluate enormous amounts of physical data and their forecasts require some of the world’s best supercomputers. The complexity of the issue certainly leads to imprecision, and climate scientists are unafraid to admit that. But like most complicated issues, climate change is a phenomenon that is scientifically approachable, despite the gaps in our collective understanding. Even allowing large margins of error, scientists agree that human industry has had the effect of warming up the world by changing the composition of the atmosphere. Their predictions over the last few decades have been borne out. Even at the lower bounds of estimation by scientists and evaluations by economists, the future is one where climate change will be noticeable and costly.

The famous 2006 Stern Review estimated that GDP in 2200 would be around 14% lower as a result of climate change, representing something like a 0.1 percentage point decrease in GDP growth per year over that time. This is trillions of dollars over the decades, lost to more frequent natural disasters, physical displacement from coastal areas and ultimately reduced crop yields resulting from scorching.

There is a minority of economists who would argue that, when discounted, the costs of global warming are not large, especially as a proportion of economic activity as a whole. However, the cost of mitigation is almost certainly less, as Nobel winner Kenneth Arrow argued in 2007, even at extremely high rates of future discounting. There is broad agreement in the developed world, at least academically, that the future costs of climate change justify enacting policies now to mitigate them.

As is the case with many technically complicated public policy concerns, a general consensus among scientists, economists and technocrats has not resulted in the accumulation of enough political capital to make meaningful changes, at least in Canada. Canada is a geographically huge, relatively cold place, and energy use per capita is very high. Our energy sector is highly developed and productive. It isn’t really our fault that we aren’t as inclined as Europeans to voluntarily raise the cost of energy, whether through carbon taxes or emissions trading. And not many of our elected leaders want to play the role of climate villain, asking us to make the sacrifices that would seem to weigh on our economy.

There was one politician who tried. It was really a courageous thing for Stéphane Dion (former federal leader of the Liberal Party) to begin talking about carbon taxes in June of 2008, while the North American economy slowed to a crawl and we feared job losses in the US would spill over the border. His naïve faith in the distracted public to support his scheme proved what most Canadians knew: he was an awful politician, even if he would make a good bureaucrat.

But Dion’s Green Shift, to his credit, was an entirely sensible plan from the standpoint of climate science or economics. It involved a phased-in tax on carbon dioxide emissions, rising from $10/tonne to $40/tonne over the course of a few years. Gasoline itself would have been exempt, already having its own tax. Other energy-related costs would have gone up slightly. An average household might have expected to spend an extra $500 or so on energy each year as a result. To compensate this, Dion’s plan would have reduced marginal tax rates on the bottom three income brackets. By most estimates these tax cuts would have more than compensated for any extra energy expenditures; a family of four with an income of $60,000 would have saved $1,300. The net costs of the law would have been borne mostly by producers.

While the plan was lambasted, there was really nothing radical about it. The NDP at the time had proposed a European-style cap-and-trade system (probably because it would allow them a greater feeling of the control they craved than would a broad tax-based approach). Nobody was proposing anything as unproductive as blocking the construction of oil pipelines, as has become an issue in the United States.

The Liberals were practically reading their policy from an economics textbook. The most efficient taxes are those that correct for market failures. Anthropogenic climate change is perhaps the most profound market failure of which we’re aware. A Pigouvian tax on carbon would have the effect of partially building the costs of the long-term effects of carbon emissions into market prices. And while Dion might have coopted the corrective tax as a new revenue stream, he instead advocated broad-based tax rate reductions that most economists would support.

A carbon tax in Canada would not go very far to change the global path of climate change over the next century. It might be nearly as valuable as a moral signal to the world as it would be an emissions reduction tool. While I am always skeptical of government as a solution to the world’s big problems (hunger, disease and poverty have been better addressed by markets), I recognize the value of corrections to our tax code in the face of genuinely vague, but certainly real and looming shocks to our economy that will come as a result of climate change. It would be unwise for conservatives like myself not to embrace a reasonable federal policy of emission reductions along with compensating reductions in income tax rates—even if it was the Liberals’ idea.

This article first appeared in the Prince Arthur Herald on August 20, 2013.

To readers: there has been a jump in new followers of this blog over the last two weeks. Thank you for following!

Let’s Save Lives and Modernize Drug Policy (No, not that drug)

Three of the most popular drugs in our society.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the possibility of decriminalizing or even legalizing marijuana in Canada. Laws in certain European countries and US jurisdictions have recently been relaxed, allowing individuals to grow and use small amounts of the drug. The question of legal marijuana use isn’t an easy one; unlike harder street drugs, marijuana is linked to few deaths, is less addictive than most drugs and legalizing it could possibly reduce drug-related violence. Marijuana is probably the least harmful illegal drug.

Let’s imagine, however, that marijuana was not so innocuous. Let’s think about a hypothetical scenario that will allow us to evaluate current drug policy.

It’s the present day in Canada, but marijuana has been legal as far back as we can remember. And of course it is; nearly everyone uses it. We smoke it at dinner, we take it to parties, we tell our friends stories about it–even politicians and public figures use it. TV and movies reflect the fact that marijuana is the thread that weaves through every social gathering. Restaurants and bars advertise the varieties and preparations they serve, and companies compete with each other to produce the richest taste and most pleasant high. Teenagers look forward to being part of the culture, and wait (or don’t) for their birthdays, when they can smoke it with their friends or family. While a few thousand people, most of them young, die every year in marijuana-related car crashes, we do our best to teach people not to smoke before driving. It’s true that marijuana use is connected to almost half of violent crime, most of youth-related crime, and that over a million people in Canada are dependent on it, and what a shame that is. Marijuana’s just fine if you don’t abuse it … even if a majority of it is smoked while binging. It’s part of a healthy, responsible lifestyle and there’s no use demonizing it. Tobacco, on the other hand, is no good. Good thing we’ve cracked down on it.

As is probably transparent, I am not really talking about marijuana. I’m talking about society’s favorite drug. In comparison to marijuana, alcohol is more poisonous, more impairing, more addictive, more deadly–and more available, more glorified, and more widely used. If marijuana was half as destructive as alcohol, we wouldn’t think of legalizing it. But we sympathize with alcohol despite its harms, because everyone uses it. It should be pointed out, more specifically, that the reason that alcohol use is unrestricted, in contrast to other drugs, is that the people in positions of power in our society drink alcohol.

My intention in this entry isn’t to promote the legalization of marijuana. I can’t spare much sympathy for the cause of any harmful drug. But the critical issue today is alcohol. Forget guns, gangs, street drugs and even war for a moment–when it comes to body counts over the years, few preventable causes can touch alcohol. The cowardice of the adults in our society to stop indulging in a useless drug is killing people.

I want to insist again that I do not promote the prohibition of alcohol. The public policies I promote are similar to those surrounding tobacco: the requirement of graphic warnings on alcohol labels, a ban on most forms of alcohol advertising, and public funding for alcohol education programs. If you feel the same way as I do, please contact The Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, the federal Minister of Health in Canada, through this form:

http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/contact/ahc-asc/minist-eng.php