VANCOUVER — An evangelical Christian university under fire across the country for its policy of forbidding sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage has secured a decisive legal victory in its efforts to open a law school in British Columbia.
B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson ruled in favour of Trinity Western University, reversing a B.C. Law Society decision to deny accreditation for graduates of its proposed law school who want to practise in the province.
In his 43-page decision issued Thursday, Hinkson rebuked the society for breaching its duty of procedural fairness and neglecting to fully consider the school's charter rights before making its decision.
The society's board of directors, known as benchers, initially granted the school accreditation in April 2014 before reversing the decision six months later after "acting outside their authority" and deferring to a membership vote, Hinkson wrote.
Design for the Trinity Western University Law School. (Photo:TWU)
The judge ruled that the benchers were inappropriately blinded by the views of its members, allowing a non-binding vote to "wrongfully fetter'' their discretion and "supplant" their judgment.
"The evidence is clear ... that the benchers allowed the members to dictate the outcome of the matter," wrote Hinkson.
"I accept the assertion of the petitioners that they were entitled to, and find that they were deprived of, a meaningful opportunity to present their case fully and fairly to (the society).''
Trinity Western has drawn controversy since its founding over a requirement that all students and staff sign a covenant pledging to abstain from sexual intimacy outside of marriage, which it defines as happening exclusively between one man and one woman.
Reactions to the ruling
B.C. Law Society president Ken Walker said in a release that the ruling is important to the public and legal profession and that the society will review the decision before deciding whether to appeal.
Representatives from Trinity Western were unavailable for comment.
In December 2014, the B.C. government revoked its original approval for the proposed law school based on uncertainty over the law society's willingness to accredit the school's graduates.
"[The ruling] affirms that the door to Canada's public square is still open for Christians."
"Trinity Western University has the option to resubmit its request to the Ministry of Advanced Education once the legal issues are resolved,'' said Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson in a statement issued on Thursday.
The Association for Reformed Political Action, one of the interveners in the case, applauded the ruling.
"This decision corrects the false premise that members of Christian communities are somehow less suitable for public engagement in an increasingly secular society,'' said the group's Canadian legal counsel Andre Schutten.
"It affirms that the door to Canada's public square is still open for Christians, even as society is abandoning its Christian principles,'' Schutten said in a statement.
Kendre Milne of the women's legal advocacy group West Coast LEAF said she was disappointed the decision hinged on procedural grounds instead of engaging with the human-rights issues at stake in the case.
School facing challenges across Canada
The proposed law school is also being challenged in other Canadian provinces by law societies that want to prevent accrediting the school's graduates because of the marriage policy.
Trinity Western launched legal challenges against law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia after both opposed granting accreditation to the university.
In January of this year, the Nova Scotia law society's action was struck down, while Ontario Divisional Court upheld its society's decision in July. Both rulings are being appealed.
The Federation of Law Societies of Canada, along with Alberta and Saskatchewan's bar associations, have all approved accreditation, while Manitoba and Saskatchewan have put decisions on hold.
Trinity's law school was originally slated to open in the fall of 2016 but executive director Earl Phillips said earlier that classes would be delayed by at least two years.
The university is located in the Fraser Valley community of Langley and enrols about 4,000 students annually.
— With files from Laura Kane and Tamysn Burgmann
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