The Supreme Court of Canada is set to release its decision Friday on whether law societies have the right to deny accreditation to a proposed law school at a Christian university in British Columbia.
The Law Society of Upper Canada, which regulates the legal profession in Ontario, and the Law Society of B.C. have said they would not license graduates from Trinity Western University because it requires all registering students to agree to a so-called community covenant that prohibits sex outside heterosexual marriage. The societies say the covenant amounts to discrimination.
The Court of Appeal for Ontario upheld the rejection, while B.C.’s top court sided with the university, saying the regulator acted unreasonably by infringing on the school’s right to freedom of religion and that it imposed its views on a minority “in a manner that is in itself intolerant and illiberal.”
The university in Langley, B.C., proposed the law school in 2012 and was later granted approval to open by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the province’s Ministry of Advanced Education.
Trinity Western has maintained that law societies that refuse its graduates would be discriminating against them and that the private institution’s case is built on evangelical Christian standards and distinct beliefs, including those expressed in the Bible.
Earl Phillips, executive director of the proposed school, said the prohibition of sex outside marriage between a man and a woman is one part of a covenant that also calls on students, faculty and staff to cultivate Christian values such as love, joy, peace and forgiveness.
“We believe the community covenant reflects our understanding of Christian principles,” he said, adding the school provides a diverse education that should be acceptable in a pluralist democracy.
“Parliament has recognized same-sex marriage but there are different views on that and we shouldn’t be adversely affected for holding different views in a diverse society.”
Matthew Wigmore, who completed a bachelor’s degree in theatre at the university in 2012, said he came out as a gay man during his second year and faced some judgment from peers but was “championed and counselled” by his academic advisers as he worked through questions about faith and sexuality.
Wigmore, who said he got a “world-class” education at Trinity Western, later co-founded One TWU, an LGBTQ community of students and alumni and now lives in the United Kingdom, where he works as a public relations executive.
“I’ve advised a lot of my friends who are LGBTQ or alumni of Trinity Western not to take the decision personally because it’s an extremely complex legal matter,” he said. “Outside of that though, I think even if Trinity technically wins the supreme court case, if they don’t hurry up and start trying to work on some of the fractures they have caused in their alumni and student community they most certainly will lose.”
Jessie Legaree, who completed two degrees at Trinity Western between 2006 and 2012, provided an affidavit for the school, saying she decided to publicly support her alma mater while she was in her first year of law school at the University of Toronto, despite being warned she might be limiting her career prospects.
“This is about Trinity’s right to exist as a separate entity where Christians can come together for higher learning,” she said. “I think it’s an incredibly important action so Trinity had to pursue it in order to continue to be able to define itself.”
Legaree, who is now a lawyer in Abbotsford, B.C., said there should be room in Canada for one faith-based school with its own views on same-sex marriage.
“It’s about being able to define itself as a Christian institution, however they do that,” she said. “This decision is going to be very far reaching and is a watershed case.”
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2001 that the B.C. College of Teachers could not deny accreditation to graduates with Trinity’s teaching degree because of its community covenant.
However, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which is among 26 interveners in the current case, has said the covenant offends modern concepts of equality and privacy.
Camille Bains, The Canadian Press