TORONTO — A Christian university in British Columbia that forbids sexual intimacy outside heterosexual marriage heads to an Ontario court this week asking for the graduates of its proposed law school to be able to practice in the province.
Specifically, Trinity Western University is asking for judicial review of a decision last year by Ontario’s law society to refuse accreditation to its yet-to-open law school.
The case between the private university and the Law Society of Upper Canada pits religious freedoms against same-sex equality rights, with each side saying one is discriminating against the other.
The case that will be heard in Toronto comes as Trinity Western is engaged in similar battles in other provinces.
It recently secured a win in Nova Scotia, where a court stopped that province’s law society from denying the university accreditation, although the decision is now being appealed.
In British Columbia, however, the B.C. Law Society voted not to recognize the university’s law school graduates and the provincial government revoked its support for the proposed law school.
At the heart of all the disputes is the university’s “community covenant” or code of conduct, which it requires all students to abide by.
The covenant includes requiring students to abstain from gossip, obscene language, prejudice, harassment, lying, cheating, stealing, pornography, drunkenness and sexual intimacy “that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”
Students can face discipline for violating the covenant, either on or off campus, according to the school’s student handbook.
The university notes, however, that it does not ban admission to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender students or faculty, or encourage discrimination of any kind against LGBT individuals.
The Law Society of Upper Canada, however, found Trinity Western’s covenant discriminatory and refused to accredit the university’s planned law school — a decision Trinity Western argues is discriminatory in itself.
“It is an overrereaction in the extreme to deny evangelical Christians their livelihood in the province of Ontario based on an intolerant and discriminatory assumption of how those students will practice law,” the university’s lawyers argue in a factum submitted to court.
“There is no evidence that TWU graduates will discriminate against clients, employees or the public.”
The university claims the law society acted beyond its jurisdiction and made a decision that “unreasonably” focuses on only one Charter value — equality of rights based on sexual orientation — while ignoring other Charter values like freedom of religion and the equality rights of Trinity Western Students.
It is seeking a court order declaring the law society’s decision invalid and asks that its application for accreditation be approved. If that isn’t possible, the university asks that the court set aside the law society’s decision and send the matter back to be reheard.
Trinity Western also noted in court documents that the Federation of Law Societies of Canada has already determined that its law school graduates will meet national requirements to practice law.
The law society argues, however, that its decision to refuse Trinity Western accreditation did not violate the freedom of religion of the university or its students.
In a factum submitted to court, it argued that accrediting the university’s law school would be “corrosive of public confidence” in the legal profession and the administration of justice.
“Compelling the law society to accredit TWU would result in discrimination against those who wish to apply to law school but are not able to conduct themselves as required by the community covenant,” its factum said.
“For the law society to accredit a law school knowing it had a discriminatory admissions policy, it would jeopardize the public’s confidence in the legal profession.”
The provincial body added that it could not and has not prevented anyone from obtaining a licence to practice law because of their beliefs.
“Currently, no one is denied access to an accredited Canadian law school because of their gender, marital status, religion or sexual orientation,” it said in its factum. “This court should not interfere with a decision that is not only reasonable, but is actually correct.”
Diana Mehta, The Canadian Press