VANCOUVER - A Christian university that requires students to abide by a so-called community covenant forbidding intimacy outside heterosexual marriage has been cleared by the Law Society of British Columbia to open its own law school, despite complaints that the covenant discriminates against gays and lesbians.
Trinity Western University, which has about 3,600 students at its campus in Langley, B.C., southeast of Vancouver, plans to open a law school in the fall of 2016.
Gay rights advocates and some members of the legal community called on regulators and the B.C. government to reject the university's proposal, pointing to a passage in the covenant that says students must abstain from "sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman." Students can face discipline for violating the covenant, either on or off campus, according to the school's student handbook.
The school already received preliminary approval from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, and B.C.'s Advanced Education Ministry has approved the school to grant degrees.
The Law Society of B.C.'s benchers, who act as the organization's board of governors, debated a motion Friday that could have overruled the federation's approval, but they ultimately voted 20-6 to allow the school's plans to proceed.
The controversy over Trinity Western's proposed law school fuelled a sensitive and emotional debate about how to balance the beliefs of a private Christian institution with the rights of gays and lesbians.
It's the second time in the past 15 years the school has fought — and won — for the right to demand that students adhere to its religious beliefs about sexual orientation and marriage. The university won a similar case at the Supreme Court of Canada in 2001 that focused on whether the school should be permitted to grant teaching degrees in light of its policies related to homosexuality.
The university's president, Bob Kuhn, said Friday that the law society's decision is an important victory — not just for the school but for all Christians across Canada.
"It's a great representation of freedom of religion," Kuhn said in an interview.
"If the decision had gone the other way, then those who don't want to see a Trinity Western University law school (would be) discriminating against us on the basis of religion and not showing a tolerant attitude toward people who share a different view on the definition of marriage."
Trinity Western says it will be the first Christian university in Canada to open a law school. It plans to enrol about 80 students in the first year of the program.
Kuhn said prospective students aren't asked about their sexual orientation during the application process, and he said all students are welcome at the school — as long as they agree to abide by the community covenant.
"If a gay or lesbian or bi student wished to come to Trinity Western University and wished to comply with the community covenant as it's written, then there's no problem," he said.
"If the answer would be no, then presumably they would choose another place to do their schooling."
In the late 1990s, the British Columbia College of Teachers blocked Trinity Western from granting teaching degrees over the very same issue. At the time, students were required to sign an agreement not to engage in activities that were "biblically condemned," including "homosexual behaviour."
The case went to the Supreme Court of Canada, which overturned the college's decision and said the British Columbia College of Teachers failed to offer evidence that Trinity Western graduates would go on to discriminate against students in the classroom.
At Friday's law society meeting, Vancouver-based constitutional lawyer Joseph Arvay said the school will be effectively putting up a sign at its doors telling gays and lesbians they are not welcome.
"What I fail to understand is how approving this law school in any way balances the rights of religious freedom and the rights of equality," Arvay said.
However, the majority of the speakers at the meeting urged the law society to allow the school to proceed, even as some of them condemned the community covenant.
Criminal lawyer David Crossin said the school's decision to press ahead without revising its covenant to respond to concerns about the document was discriminatory, hurtful and hypocritical.
"In my view, however, the law and the public interest demand recognition of TWU's right to conduct their affairs in this way," Crossin said.
"There is no evidence the ability of the teachers to properly teach will be compromised. There is no evidence the ability of the students to learn and think will be improperly stunted. There is no evidence the graduates will be unable or unwilling to properly serve the public and the administration of justice."
Jan Lindsay, president of the Law Society of B.C., declined to comment on the decision, but said the vote followed a thoughtful debate that saw lawyers struggle with competing charter rights.
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