The deans of Canada’s law schools are objecting to a Christian university’s bid to establish its own law school in BC because the university upholds a policy that discriminates against gay students.
In a letter addressed to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, which determines whether common-law degree programs meet requirements set out by Canadian law societies, Council of Canadian Law Deans president Bill Flanagan objects to Trinity Western University’s (TWU) pending application because of its community covenant, which students must sign upon admittance.
Among other things, the declaration explicitly holds students responsible to uphold biblical teachings, which include no premarital sex and no homosexuality. Failure to uphold these commitments, according to the student handbook, could result in discipline, dismissal or a refusal to readmit a student to the university.
“We would urge the Federation to investigate whether TWU’s covenant is inconsistent with federal or provincial law,” Flanagan writes. “We would also urge the federation to consider this covenant and its intentionally discriminatory impact on gay, lesbian and bisexual students when evaluating TWU’s application to establish an approved common law program.”
Dean Bill Flanagan says Trinity Western University's Christian covenant is incompatible with the core value of Canadian law, equality, and should therefore be refused a law school. The BC Civil Liberties Association disagrees.
“Canada protects religious rights for all Canadians, and we respect the rights of the LGBT community to hold their views,” responds TWU president Jonathan S Raymond.
“TWU’s covenant is not anti-gay nor discriminatory,” Raymond maintains. “Students sign codes of conduct at universities voluntarily. TWU’s covenant reflects our identity as a Christian university. The Supreme Court of Canada, in 2001, upheld TWU’s right to have a covenant and professional schools. This ruling still stands.”
In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld TWU’s right to teach Christian values — even if they are homophobic. The high court found the university’s teacher program graduates are entitled to hold “sexist, racist or homophobic beliefs” as long as they don’t act on them in the public school classrooms to which they might be assigned.
“There is an exemption in the BC Human Rights Code that exempts private religious institutions, and this is how Trinity Western is able to maintain this practice,” Flanagan concedes. “It’s likely not inconsistent with provincial human rights legislation.”
Whether TWU is allowed to maintain its Christian covenant is not the point, Flanagan argues. The broader point is “that equality is a core value in Canadian law, including the Charter of Human Rights and all Canadian law schools. The Federation should take this into account. Even if a practice is exempt in the BC Human Rights Code, do we want a law school that expressly discriminates based on sexual orientation?”
BC Civil Liberties president Lindsay Lyster says she doesn’t care what kind of covenant students have to sign as long as they are able to enter the legal profession as competent and effective lawyers.
“The BC Civil Liberties Association intervened in support of Trinity Western when essentially the same issue arose years ago now, with respect to their ability to educate teachers,” she says. “In that case the Supreme Court of Canada clearly said the fact that you are expected to sign on to a code of conduct doesn’t mean you can’t be a teacher and, equally in my view, in a matter of law, that you can’t be a lawyer.
“So, I don’t think that as a matter of law there’s any reason why, because Trinity Western is a Christian university, it can’t have a law school,” she says. “And in fact it’s important to know there is a fine tradition of Christian universities with fine law schools that produce fine lawyers.”
Lyster says lawyers should be judged based on their conduct rather than their choice of university.
“If a member of a law society was acting in a discriminatory manner, that would be something legitimately of concern to that law society,” she says. “We don’t judge members of the professions or law societies on the basis of their beliefs, or the beliefs of the educational institution where they chose to obtain their law degree.”
BC Teachers’ Federation president Susan Lambert disagrees. She says there’s no place in a post-secondary institution for a policy that discriminates based on sexual orientation.
“We have created a constitutional right in Canada that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and we entrust the courts and lawyers who work in the judicial system to uphold that constitutional right,” she says. “So it’s inherently contradictory for a school that teaches students to exclude the possibility of homosexual relationships to also graduate lawyers who would have to uphold our constitution.”
Vancouver vice-principal James Chamberlain describes TWU’s position as a “love the sinner but hate the sin” perspective.
"As a gay man who grew up in Abbotsford, I know the power of the particular churches to silence and deny people their legitimate identity and right to acceptance," he says. "So I think that Trinity Western is trying to play on two angles here. One, what they think the law says, and the other being what their religious values are, and I don’t believe their religious values and faith-based belief can trump the Canadian law.”
“With the British Columbia College of Teachers investigation that ruled in their favour, I think they may feel buoyed by holding this position, but it’s outdated and it doesn't reflect the contemporary Canadian values legally or socially,” Chamberlain says. “Their archaic position and desire to cling to the past through the lens of their faith doesn't support LGBTQ people."