Secularists and religious freedom advocates battle in court this week over Christian law school
VANCOUVER, British Columbia, June 2, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – In a battle certain to end up in the Supreme Court of Canada, the forces of secular humanism and those of traditional Christianity are facing off this week in the B.C. Court of Appeals over whether law graduates from Trinity Western University, a private and Christian school based in nearby Langley, have the right to be lawyers.
“This case will make history whichever way it goes,” TWU spokewoman Amy Robertson told LifeSiteNews after Wednesday’s hearing. “If we win it will mean more protection for diversity and the rights of religious believers. If we lose it will mean more power in the hands of the state and organizations like the Law Society to tell people what they can and can’t believe.”
The B.C. Law Society says they do not have the right to practice, because of the school’s longstanding community covenant, a staple in many Christian universities, requiring students to promise to abide by traditional Christian moral behavior. Since this means abstaining from sex outside natural marriage, the Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC) and its counterparts in Ontario and Nova Scotia have condemned it as discriminatory against homosexual law students (as well as against women and those in common-law relationships). Therefore, they say, the covenant is incompatible with their own commitment to tolerance and human rights.
As the LSBC stated in its initial arguments: “Because law schools act as gateways to the legal profession and judicial branch of government, the Law Society must ensure that a law school preserves the rights and freedoms of all persons.”
But the B.C. Supreme Court overturned the Law Society’s rejection of TWU last fall on the grounds its own charter allows it only to rule on a school’s academic credentials, and that it did not give sufficient weight to the religious rights of TWU’s students to be educated within their faith. Meanwhile the Nova Scotia courts threw out the legal profession’s rejection of TWU as well, while the Ontario lower court sustained its law society’s rejection. Both were appealed.
Intervenors on the law society’s side include several branches of Outlaw, a gay law students club, the Canadian Secular Alliance, the B.C. Humanist Association, and two feminist lawyers’ groups.
Ranged alongside TWU are a rare alliance of conservative Christian churches including the Vancouver Catholic Archdiocese, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Canada as well as the Association for Reformed Political Action, the Christian Legal Fellowship, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, and Catholic Civil Rights League.
In explaining the B.C. Law Society’s appeal, its president David Crossin argued that the issue was over “two competing Charter rights and values: the equality rights of the LGBTQ community and the position taken by TWU concerning religious freedom.”
On the other hand, TWU argues that its community covenant does not affect the rights of homosexuals, since they can still attend the law school and will not be asked about their sexual preference. As well, adding a Christian law school does not eliminate any openings for homosexuals in Canada’s other law schools and may even make more, since some qualified Christian applicants may prefer to attend TWU.
TWU and its allies contend that both the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and B.C.’s Human Rights Code protect the rights of Christians to join professions and religious associations. As the Christian Legal Fellowship’s appeal “factum” put it, “The LSBC’s decision to reject all graduates of the proposed law school of Trinity Western University violates the Charter rights of religious law students and implicates the rights of all religious lawyers.”
Asked why TWU doesn’t simply drop its covenant, spokesperson Amy Robertson said, “The community covenant is a core part of defining the TWU community as distinctly Christian. We are not making a statement about LGBTQ people; we are making a statement about biblical marriage, which is sacred to us.”
But Robertson added that “the same covenant calls for all members of the TWU community to respect the dignity of others regardless of their background.” Several LGBTQ students attended the school, she said.
TWU won a very similar case at the Supreme Court of Canada level in 2001 when the governing body of B.C.’s provincial teaching profession refused to grant Trinity’s education grads membership because of the community covenant. At that point the Supreme Court found that the Charter’s religious rights included the freedom of Christians to attend their own schools and universities. Moreover, though many TWU students had gone into teaching after a final year at other universities, there was no evidence any of them had ever discriminated against homosexual students.
“TWU graduates have proven themselves skilful,” said Robertson. “They’ve proven themselves compassionate, and there has never been any evidence of their being discriminatory.”
However, the Supreme Court has shown a recent willingness to reverse earlier rulings, most notably in the 2015 Carter decision that threw out Canada’s law against assisted suicide. Its opponents have argued that the interests of sexual minorities have become more important in Canadian society to the point that they trump religious rights.
However, TWU’s Robertson said, “The two cases are quite different. The way legal decisions have been going in recent years has been to strengthen our rights as Canadians of religious faith.”
Oral arguments continue until Friday. Next week TWU’s appeal of the Ontario lower court ruling will be heard in Toronto.