POLITICS

Dispute between Christian university, B.C. law society now court bound

12/18/2014 04:53 EST | Updated 02/17/2015 05:59 EST
VANCOUVER - A Christian university embroiled in a debate about religious freedoms and same-sex equality rights will challenge in court a Law Society of British Columbia decision not to accredit graduates from its proposed law school.

In contention is a community covenant at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., that prohibits sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman.

The society accredited the proposed law school last April but reversed that decision in October.

Earlier this month, the government announced that it was also revoking its support.

University spokesman Guy Saffold said the judicial review will ask the B.C. Supreme Court to overturn the society's decision because it acted improperly under its own procedural guidelines and Canadian law.

"The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the freedom of religion, the freedom of religious communities to express their identity and we feel that the decision the law society has made violates those very important freedoms of our Canadian society," said Saffold.

A similar judicial review is already underway in Nova Scotia. There, the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society has decided not to allow graduates of the proposed law school to enrol in the bar admission program unless the university dropped a requirement that students sign a pledge to abstain from sex outside heterosexual marriage.

The Law Society of B.C. said in an email that it will defend its decision and respond to the university's petition within the time provided under the court's rules.

"As the matter is now before the courts, we will not be commenting further on the issues involved in the litigation," said spokesman Ryan-Sang Lee.

Barbara findlay, who describes herself as a lesbian lawyer, said she is not surprised by TWU's decision to challenge the law society.

"They have been going to court in every province whose law society has refused them accreditation, hoping for a different outcome," said findlay, who doesn't use capitals in her name. "Ultimately, it will be for the courts to decide."

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which supported accreditation, said in an email it will gather the necessary materials to evaluate the case before determining whether it will apply as an intervener.

The university went through a similar tumult in 2001, when it opened a school of education. That issue ultimately ended up before the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in 2001 in favour of Trinity Western over the B.C. College of Teachers.

Saffold said the university hopes the court will rule likewise, citing the 2005 federal Civil Marriage Act.

Part of the university's argument is that the law recognizing same-sex marriages in Canada also protects the rights of those who oppose those unions, said Saffold.

In fact, in 2005, then-Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler stressed religious officials opposed to same-sex marriages wouldn't be forced to recognize such unions under the federal act.

"The civil marriage act of 2005 made same-sex marriage legal in Canada but it also included a provision in the very same act that people who had a religious view of marriage would not be disadvantaged because it was different," said Saffold.

"So what's changed is that same-sex marriage has been legalized and the Parliament at the same time declared that no disadvantage should be imposed on people who have another view.

"We think that the law is stronger today in favour of Trinity Western being able to offer its legal program than it use to be."

Saffold said the courts must balance conflicting rights as best as they can to maintain a diverse and tolerant society, and the university argues they have done that by recognizing the rights of same-sex couples to marry and the rights of religious communities to express their own identities differently.