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Trinity Western Law School Fight Is About Religious Freedom

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"Oh bloody hell, not this again."

That was the Christian version of my response this month when I learned that a bunch of barristers of the Law Society of B.C. (LSBC) are trying to prevent my alma mater from starting a law school, on almost nakedly religious grounds.

The LSBC had agreed to accredit a new law school by Langley-based Trinity Western University (TWU), which has grown from Bible college-y roots to offer professional degrees in nursing, teaching, and business.

But then TWU became the latest target of what a Canadian Orwell might call Two Minutes Dislike over its accused anti-gay "community covenant."

The covenant is a document that all TWU enrolling students sign, pledging to live by a certain code of conduct. It doesn't once mention gays, but arguably conflicts with modern Canadian sexual mores.

TWU students agree to "voluntarily abstain" from a whole bunch of things while they go to school, including any "sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman."

Activist lawyers in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick had already raised a loud ruckus. After a majority vote by about 60 per cent of its members, LSBC's governors or "benchers" caved, thus encouraging years of costly litigation for both parties, with the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education tangled in for good measure.

TWU wasn't happy with this decision but its leadership was prepared for it. The administration has sent out surveys to alumnae to gauge our support for grinding out a win in the courts and will likely proceed to do just that.

The university has some confidence of success because of the last time it went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

When I arrived at TWU in 1999, the school was fighting the British Columbia College of Teachers (BCCT) over the same issue. Trinity wanted the right to offer teaching degrees to its students.

The BCCT thought allowing that would be bad for public education. Letting a bunch of uncouth Bible thumpers in the door without sending them through a secular institution first for some remedial re-education -- in this case, a year at Simon Fraser University -- was simply unthinkable.

The problem then was best summed up by a headline writer for The Globe and Mail: "Students at Trinity Western University have pledged not to smoke, drink, swear, take drugs, fornicate, or have gay sex. Are they unfit to teach your children?"

The high court responded with the legal equivalent of, "well, when you put it like that..." By a vote of eight to one, the judges sided with Trinity in 2001.

In a narrow ruling, they held that while "neither freedom of religion nor the guarantee against discrimination based on sexual orientation is absolute," to go against TWU in this case would chip away at freedom of religion in a dangerous way.

So now, 13 years later, TWU will be heading back into the courts and hoping that their precedent stands.

The only thing that has changed since the last time, as far as I can tell with my non-law school education, is that gay marriage is the law of the land in all of Canada.

So now, having already won that resounding victory in the courts and in Parliament, gay rights campaigners have moved to make an anathema of one of the few institutions in Canada that has not bent the knee.

If the shoes were other-footed, many conscientious lawyers would decry this as religious extremism of the worst sort and fight against it on principle.

They'd be right to do so -- then, and now.