Trinity Western wins legal victory in fight to open Christian law school

By The Canadian Press
November 1, 2016 - 9:45am

VANCOUVER — A decisive legal victory in British Columbia has put an evangelical Christian university one step closer in its bid to secure recognition for its proposed law school.

The Appeal Court of B.C. ruled in favour of Trinity Western University on Tuesday, describing efforts by B.C.'s law society to deny accreditation to the school's future lawyers as "unreasonable."

The dispute centres around the university's community covenant that bans its students from having sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage.

In a unanimous decision, a panel of five judges said the negative impact on Trinity Western's religious freedoms would be severe and far outweigh the minimal effect accreditation would have on gay and lesbian rights.

"A society that does not admit of and accommodate differences cannot be a free and democratic society — one in which its citizens are free to think, to disagree, to debate and to challenge the accepted view without fear of reprisal," says the 66-page judgment.

"This case demonstrates that a well-intentioned majority acting in the name of tolerance and liberalism can, if unchecked, impose its views on the minority in a manner that is in itself intolerant and illiberal."

The decision upholds last year's B.C. Supreme Court ruling against the Law Society of B.C. and its move to prevent the school's future alumni from working in the province as lawyers.

Amy Robertson, spokeswoman for Trinity Western, described the ruling as no surprise and "exactly the decision we were looking for."

"It's a very good day at Trinity Western," Robertson said.

"For us, this is a real protection of Canadian identity. We live in a country where the government doesn't tell us what to believe. We live in a country where diversity is celebrated."

In a written statement, B.C. Law Society spokeswoman Vinnie Yuen said the Appeal Court decision "added another dimension to an already complex issue." The society will review the ruling before considering its next steps, she said.

The law society has argued that the controversial code of conduct discriminates against gays and lesbians hoping to enter the legal profession.

The Appeal Court found that denying approval to Trinity Western would not enhance access to law school for members of the LGBTQ community and therefore wouldn't help the law society meet its public-interest objectives.

It found that creating 60 new law school seats, which brings the Canadian total to about 2,500, would divert some law school hopefuls from programs elsewhere and, as a result, increase the number of seats available to LGBTQ applicants.

"While we accept that approval of (Trinity Western's) law school has in principle a detrimental impact on LGBTQ equality rights because the number of law school places would not be equally open to all students, the impact on applications made ... by LGBTQ students would be insignificant in real terms."

Trinity Western's proposed law program has stirred up controversy elsewhere, with both Nova Scotia and Ontario's law societies challenging the school's push for recognition.

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal denied the N.S. Barristers' Society's efforts to prevent the school's law graduates from receiving accreditation.

Ontario's Appeal Court upheld a ruling against Trinity Western, approving the law society's attempt in that province to deny recognition to the university's future law graduates.

Robertson said Trinity Western applied about a week ago for leave to appeal the Ontario ruling and expects the case to go to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Law bodies elsewhere have approved accreditation, including Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and the Federation of Law Societies of Canada.

The dispute involving B.C.'s society came to a head last year when the B.C. Supreme Court ruled in favour of the university.

Lawyer and self-described queer activist barbara findlay, who doesn't use capitals in her name, said she is disappointed in the Appeal Court's conclusion and takes issue with how the decision weighs religious liberties against freedom from discrimination.

"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."

Trinity Western's law school was originally slated to open in 2016, but that date has since been pushed back to the fall of 2018. The school is located in the Fraser Valley community of Langley and enrols about 4,000 students annually.

— Follow @gwomand on Twitter

Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misspelled Vinnie Yuen's name.

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