Two sides to the ongoing battle for Trinity Western’s law school

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Photo by Trinity Western University/Facebook
Photo by Trinity Western University/Facebook

There has been a fierce debate over whether Trinity Western University (TWU), a private Christian university based in Langley, B.C., should open a law school.

The B.C. Law Society believes that the contract that all TWU students must sign, which bans sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage, discriminates against the LGBT community. As such, the Law Society says it will not recognize future law school graduates from Trinity Western University as lawyers.

This has triggered a battle between TWU and the Law Society of B.C. in the courts. Originally, in 2014, the Law Society officially recognized the university’s law school. However, following backlash from its members, the society held a referendum to decide if graduates of the proposed law school should be accredited. The outcome was a 25 to five decision against by ‘benchers,’ who oversee the work of the Law Society.

TWU then took the issue to the B.C. Supreme Court, who ruled in favour of Trinity Western, saying that the Law Society acted improperly with its referendum. The society went to the B.C. Court of Appeal, where a panel of five judges unanimously decided on Nov. 1 that TWU’s religious rights outweighed any repercussions the queer community may face.

“A society that does not admit of and accommodate differences cannot be a free and democratic society,” read their 66-page statement.

This case raises a complex argument between two different Charter Rights: Section 15 protects the equality rights of all Canadians, whereas Section 2 guarantees fundamental freedoms—including the right to religious freedom—for all Canadians.

The case against Trinity Western University

Most of the controversy surrounding Trinity Western’s proposed law pro- gram stems from its exclusion of the LGBT community. Because the uni- versity follows a traditional Christian doctrine, its “community covenant” has been interpreted by the Law Society as prejudiced. The society has expressed concerns that this covenant may encourage discrimina- tion against queer students hoping to enter the legal profession.

There is also the possibility that graduating from such an institution would result in lawyers with biased attitudes. This would be disadvantageous in courtroom settings involving members of the LGBT community, especially if the potentially prejudiced lawyers eventually became judges.

In a report by the Canadian Press, lawyer and gay rights activist Barbara Findlay expressed disapproval for Trinity Western’s covenant:

“In my view, freedom of religion stops when my religion affects you,” she said. “It is not acceptable to exclude gay and lesbian people from the discourse in that university by putting up a barrier of making them sign a discriminatory code.”

As a marginalized community, the LGBT demographic often faces discrimination in the workplace. According to the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, up to 43 per cent of gay or lesbian employees have faced some form of discrimination while on the job. Transgender individuals are even more victimized, with statistics indicating that up to 90 per cent of trans employees encounter mistreatment at work. These statistics apply to an American demographic; however, similar if less defined findings have been reported in Canada.

With the numerous professional obstacles that already exist for LGBT individuals, it feels unnecessary and regressive to establish an entire law school that so blatantly expresses its intolerance for the queer community.

The case for Trinity Western University

TWU argues that their faith-based law school could give their students a broader perspective on history, a Christian community-based learning environment, and increased profes- sional and ethical standards.

Although the Law Society of B.C. believes that most of the graduates from TWU Law School would have biased attitudes, it’s important to note that some of the best U.S law schools, such as Notre Dame and Boston College, are faith-based. Indeed, US News ranks Notre Dame 22nd and Boston College 30th on its best U.S. law schools list. Such a high-status ranking implies a certain lack of bias from the graduates of those institutions.

Other benefits of TWU’s law school include the fact that it would be the only private law school in Canada, costing taxpayers nothing, and that it would focus on charity law, in providing legal services to nonprofit organizations and charities. No other Canadian law school focuses on charity law, some not even offering a course.

Trinity Western underwent a similar experiencebackin2001,whenitwas trying to open a school of education. Eventually, the issue went to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in favour of TWU over the B.C. College of Teachers.

There are lawyers across the world with Christian beliefs; because they attended other law schools, however, they are accredited lawyers. It is unfair that they have their accreditation, while future graduates of TWU’s law school may not, simply because TWU publicly stated that they would be a faith-based law school.

Denying TWU the right to open their own law school could start a slippery slope of denying people their freedoms of association and of belief. If another faith-based university wanted to open a law school, this could contribute to more and more students with various beliefs having their fundamental freedoms infringed upon.

Furthermore, it is an assumption that lawyers who graduated from these faith-based institutions would act against the best interests of the LGBT community. After all, these lawyers do have a legal obligation under the Law Society of B.C.’s Professional Code of Conduct to “carry on the practice of law and discharge all responsibilities to clients, tribunals, the public and other members of the profession honourably and with integrity.” If the lawyer brought prejudice to their practice, they would be acting against that code of conduct, and would ultimately fail in their profession as a lawyer.

B.C. Court of Appeal rules in favour of TWU

Trinity Western scored a legal victory in British Columbia, but it continues to struggle for accreditation across the country; while it won a similar case in Nova Scotia earlier in the year, an Ontario court supported the Ontario Law Society’s decision not to accept graduates from the university.

The Law Society of British Columbia also plans to appeal the B.C. Court of Appeal decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. “The Law Society is of the view that this matter is of national significance,” Law Society president David Crossin said.

In the meantime, while TWU’s law school was slated to welcome its first students in 2016, this has been delayed to the fall of 2018 due to ongoing legal disputes.