A note on the Trinity Western University law school issue

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The BCCLA stands for the rights to equality, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of religion. Trinity Western University (“TWU”), a private religious educational institution, has proposed to open a new law school and is seeking formal accreditation by the Federation of Canadian Law Societies. The BCCLA does not endorse TWU’s application. It is not the BCCLA’s role to endorse TWU or any other prospective law school for accreditation. Our position, set out in a letter to the Federation of Canadian Law Societies, is that any decision to grant or deny TWU’s bid to have a law school accredited must be considered properly on its merits, and not be rejected on grounds that would violate the freedom of religion and freedom of association of the school’s community.

Trinity Western University (TWU) is a private religious university. TWU requires its students to sign a “Community Covenant Agreement” that requires students to “voluntarily abstain” from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” This Community Covenant clearly discriminates against lesbian, gay and bisexual students. BCCLA does not endorse the practice of TWU in this respect and it is not our place to do so.

The BCCLA has long fought against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, including in multiple court cases, and we will not give up this fight. This includes our acting as co-plaintiffs in Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium v. Canada to protect the rights of the LGBT community from discrimination by Canada Customs agents targeting shipment to bookstores catering to the community, and intervening in Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36 to support the principle of the public school system remaining secular and to ensure that respectful education of students concerning same-sex relationships was achieved. It is the BCCLA’s deeply held conviction that queer rights are human rights.

However, freedom of religion is a constitutionally-protected human right too. Any private religious institution must have the right to limit its membership and impose faith-based rules on its membership. Individual members of the religious faith are similarly free to observe or to reject these rules, and to make decisions about whether they wish to belong to these institutions accordingly. These freedoms are essential to the ability of any religious group to carry on their existence. People who are not members of a particular religion (and even those who are) may not approve of or be comfortable with the beliefs of that faith. However, BCCLA’s position – supported by the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers (a case in which BCCLA intervened)  – is that the repugnance of a certain set of beliefs even to a majority of Canadians cannot be the basis to deny certain benefits to members of that faith.

In that case, the Supreme Court of Canada considered whether TWU should be allowed to be certified to train teachers.  The Court made clear that a fear about future discrimination by TWU graduates was no reason to deny the University the ability to train teachers:

[T]he proper place to draw the line in cases like the one at bar is generally between belief and conduct.  The freedom to hold beliefs is broader than the freedom to act on them.  Absent concrete evidence that training teachers at TWU fosters discrimination in the public schools of B.C., the freedom of individuals to adhere to certain religious beliefs while at TWU should be respected.  The BCCT, rightfully, does not require public universities with teacher education programs to screen out applicants who hold sexist, racist or homophobic beliefs.  For better or for worse, tolerance of divergent beliefs is a hallmark of a democratic society (paragraph 36).

The same reasoning applies to training lawyers. They are to be judged on their conduct and not on their  beliefs. The fact that a law student has graduated from TWU does not mean that he or she will discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation in the future. If a lawyer discriminates in the future legal practice, their conduct can and will be addressed by the Law Society governing the legal profession, and the Human Rights Code.

BCCLA takes no position on whether TWU’s proposed law school should be accredited. As advocates for the freedom of religion and the freedom of association, we take the position that the freedom of religion of people who have come together in religious institution like TWU needs to be respected in making a decision – based on a wide range of factors – on whether or not their proposed law school should be accredited.

The BCCLA’s letter on the TWU law school can be found here.

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