03/28/2013 17:28 EDT | Updated 05/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Proposed faith-based law school in B.C. draws protest

A B.C. university that hopes to open the country's first faith-based law school has become the latest battleground between religious freedom and equality rights.

Over a thousand students from eight Canadian law schools have signed letters protesting the efforts by Trinity Western University, a private Christian institution in Langley, B.C., to open a law school, claiming the university's policies discriminate against the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) community.

The letter petition asks the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education, Innovation and Technology to reject the accreditation of TWU's proposed law school, claiming parts of the university's student handbook infringe on the rights of LGBT students, faculty and staff.

The petitioners are concerned with the university's conduct expectations, outlined in the handbook in a document called Community Covenant Agreement. It contains a clause that requires community members to abstain from "sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman."

If a student fails to comply with the agreement after signing it, the university "reserves the right to discipline, dismiss, or refuse a student’s re-admission to the University," according to the handbook.

"This discriminatory policy really does not represent Canadian law. I think it definitely does offer a less welcoming environment for LGBT students to attend [TWU]," said Christopher Ghesquiere, one of the organizers of the letter petition and a representative of OUTlaw, a group the represents LGBT students at the University of Alberta, in an interview with CBC Radio.

"I feel a law school should propagate the values of Canadian law, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Despite the fact that the law recognizes same-sex marriages, the school seems not to."

Proposal was ‘rigorously researched’

In a statement responding to the petition, TWU said the proposal was "rigorously researched and developed" after consulting with legal experts.

"While we value and respect differing views, we trust that a faith-based community still has the religious freedom in Canada to maintain its beliefs and participate fully in society," the statement said.

According to the proposal, the university is seeking to offer a three-year law program that accepts 60 students a year starting in September 2015. If approved, it will be the first faith-based law school in Canada. It will also be the first private university to operate a law school.

"Our proposal is for a School of Law that emphasizes professionalism, competence, high ethical standards and leadership. The faith component adds a unique dimension to legal education," Janet Epp Buckingham and Kevin Sawatsky, two faculty members who drafted the law school proposal, told CBC News in a joint email response.

Both the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education, Innovation and Technology are currently reviewing TWU's proposal.

School has made headlines before

This is not the first time the small university in B.C.'s Fraser Valley has made headlines because of its views on sexual orientation.

More than a decade ago, the British Columbia College of Teachers denied the university's application to offer its own final year of teacher education, which had been taught at Simon Fraser University.

BCCT's objection was what they described as discriminatory practices in TWU's standards statement — an earlier version of the Community Covenant Agreement — that prohibited homosexual behaviour.

In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned BCCT's decision in an eight-to-one ruling. The court found there was no concrete evidence that training teachers at TWU would foster discrimination in the province's public school system. Also, it was beyond the scope of BCCT's mandate to reconcile the competing values of religious freedom and equality rights.

The court also stated that TWU is a private institution that falls outside of the charter, and is "exempt, in part" from the province's human rights legislation.

Many supporters of TWU's law school bid have cited this landmark decision, but Dustin Klaut, who co-drafted the letter petition for UBC law students, said the ruling may no longer apply today.

"It occurred in 2001, and there has been a great deal of progress not only in terms of administrative law changing, but also in terms of the advancement of gay rights in Canadian society," he said.

Out of over a thousand signatures collected for this letter campaign, 236 came from UBC, representing one-third of the university's law program.

A question of treatment

Despite opposition to TWU’s law school proposal from other universities, some in TWU’s LGBT community are showing their support.

Bryan Sandberg, a communications student, came out in his first year at TWU. He described the campus environment as extremely welcoming for openly gay students.

"Of course there are people on campus who have more conservative traditional views, but to me, they have the right to believe that," he told CBC Radio. "The only thing I'm concerned about is the way people treat me, and the way people treat me has been overall very positive."

- Bryan Sandberg talks about why he chose TWU on CBC Radio's The 180

Although he doesn’t agree with the Community Covenant Agreement's definition of marriage, Sandberg said its purpose has been largely misinterpreted. He said the clauses that promote a harassment-free campus have also been overlooked.

"[The agreement] is an invitation to join the Trinity Western community. It basically outlines what the community and the school believe in. It doesn’t necessarily say everybody is going to live exactly like that."