11/01/2016 12:48 EDT

Trinity Western University Wins Legal Victory In Bid To Open Law School

The legal dispute centres around the university's covenant banning its students from having sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage.

VANCOUVER — A decisive legal victory in British Columbia has put an evangelical Christian university one step closer in its bid to secure recognition for its proposed law school.

The Appeal Court of B.C. released a decision in favour of Trinity Western University on Tuesday, describing efforts by B.C.'s law society to deny accreditation to the school's future lawyers as "unreasonable.''

The legal dispute centres around the university's community covenant that bans its students from having sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage.

Religious freedoms outweighed minimal effect on LGBT rights: panel

In a unanimous decision, a panel of five judges said the negative impact on Trinity Western's religious freedoms would be severe and far outweigh the minimal effect accreditation would have on gay and lesbian rights.

"A society that does not admit of and accommodate differences cannot be a free and democratic society — one in which its citizens are free to think, to disagree, to debate and to challenge the accepted view without fear of reprisal,'' says the 66-page judgment.

"This case demonstrates that a well-intentioned majority acting in the name of tolerance and liberalism can, if unchecked, impose its views on the minority in a manner that is in itself intolerant and illiberal.''

The decision upholds last year's B.C. Supreme Court ruling against the Law Society of B.C. and its move to prevent the school's future alumni from working in the province as lawyers.

"A society that does not admit of and accommodate differences cannot be a free and democratic society."

In a written statement, B.C. Law Society spokeswoman Vinnie Yueng said the Appeal Court decision "added another dimension to an already complex issue.'' The society would review the ruling before considering its next steps, she said.

The law society has argued that the controversial code of conduct discriminates against gays and lesbians hoping to enter the legal profession.

The Appeal Court decision found that denying approval to Trinity Western would not enhance access to law school for members of the LGBTQ community and therefore wouldn't help the law society meet its public-interest objectives.

It found that creating 60 new law school seats, which brings the Canadian total to about 2,500, would divert some law school hopefuls from programs elsewhere and, as a result, increase the number of seats available to LGBTQ applicants.

Trinity Western's proposed law program has stirred up controversy. (Photo: CP)

"While we accept that approval of (Trinity Western's) law school has in principle a detrimental impact on LGBTQ equality rights because the number of law school places would not be equally open to all students, the impact on applications made ... by LGBTQ students would be insignificant in real terms.''

Trinity Western's proposed law program has stirred up controversy elsewhere, with both Nova Scotia and Ontario's law societies challenging the school's push for recognition.

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal ultimately denied the N.S. Barristers' Society's efforts to prevent the school's law graduates from receiving accreditation in that province. The society has since said it would not appeal the decision.

Ontario's Appeal Court upheld a ruling against Trinity Western, approving the law society's attempt in that province to deny recognition to the university's future law graduates.

Law bodies elsewhere have approved accreditation, including Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and the Federation of Law Societies of Canada.

B.C. Supreme Court also ruled in favour

The dispute involving B.C.'s society came to a head last year when the B.C. Supreme Court ruled in favour of the university.

In that decision, the court said benchers, who sit on the law society's governing board, allowed themselves to be inappropriately blinded by their members, citing an error of administrative law as opposed to broader issues around constitutional liberties.

The B.C. Appeal Court agreed with the lower court judgment that the board failed to weigh the impact of the decision on charter rights and erred in following the majority decision after holding a binding referendum on whether to approve accreditation.

Trinity Western's law school was originally slated to open in 2016, but that date has since been pushed back to the fall of 2018. The school is located in the Fraser Valley community of Langley and enrols about 4,000 students annually.