12/11/2014 09:42 EST | Updated 02/10/2015 05:59 EST

Trinity Western Law School Loses B.C. Government's Support


VICTORIA - British Columbia's government has revoked its support for a proposed Christian law school that is embroiled in a debate pitting religious freedoms against same-sex equality rights in Canada.

Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk released a statement Thursday evening, saying he has written Trinity Western University and told the Fraser Valley institution that it cannot enrol students in the program slated to open in 2016.

The university responded quickly, and in a news release published on its website about 90 minutes before Virk's statement was even emailed to some media outlets, announced the possibility of future court action.

Virk's decision follows an October vote by the B.C. Law Society not to recognize the university's law-school graduates.

At issue is a covenant at the school that prohibits sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman.

"The current uncertainty over the status of the regulatory body approval means prospective graduates may not be able to be called to the bar, or practise law, in British Columbia," said Virk.

"This is a significant change to the context in which I made my original decision."

Virk said the university can reapply for government consent once the legal issues are resolved.

University president Bob Kuhn said he was disappointed by the announcement and questioned the "justifiable basis" for Virk's decision.

In December 2013, Virk announced his consent for the proposed law school, although he acknowledged opposition to the covenant.

He said at the time that a review by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada had confirmed that graduates of the program could meet the national standards to practise law.

He said he based his decision on a recommendation by the Degree Quality Assessment Board, established by his ministry.

"We remain committed to having a school of law and now have to carefully consider all our options," said Kuhn, adding "There are such important rights and freedoms at stake that we may have no choice but to seek protection of them in court."

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 favour of Trinity Western over the B.C. College of Teachers.

The Law Society of Canada has already approved Trinity's program and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association has come out in favour of accreditation.

Alberta and Saskatchewan's bar associations have approved accreditation, while Manitoba and Saskatchewan have put decisions on hold.

Law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia voted against accrediting students, prompting Trinity Western to turn to the courts in both provinces.

Judicial reviews of the Nova Scotia and Ontario decisions are scheduled, separately, in Ontario Superior Court and Nova Scotia Supreme Court in December.

In April, the governing council of the B.C. Law Society decided to accredit the law school but members voted against it in a non-binding vote in June.

The governors then announced the mail-in referendum at the end of September. More than 73 per cent of the members who voted did so against accreditation.

At the end of October, 25 of 30 governors known as "benchers" voted in favour of upholding the referendum result. One was opposed and four members abstained.

By Keven Drews in Vancouver


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