BRITISH COLUMBIA, Canada — The Law Society of British Columbia must recognize Trinity Western University’s (TWU) future law school graduates, according to a unanimous opinion the British Columbia (B.C.) Court of Appeals ruled.
“The TWU community has a right to hold and act on its beliefs, absent evidence of actual harm,” a five-judge panel wrote. “To do so is an expression of its right to freedom of religion.”
The decision is the latest chapter in TWU’s years-long battle to open Canada’s first Christian law school. In December 2013 the provincial law society approved the university’s plans, but a 2014 members referendum revoked it over concerns that the TWU community covenant — which holds students to orthodox Christian behavioral standards, including heterosexual marriage — is discriminatory.
The B.C. appeals court ruled it was the law society that discriminated.
“The law society’s decision not to approve TWU’s faculty of law denies these evangelical Christians the ability to exercise fundamental religious and associative rights which would otherwise be assured to them under [section] 2 of the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms],” the judges wrote. “A society that does not admit of and accommodate differences cannot be a free and democratic society.”
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees all Canadians the freedoms of conscience and religion. The country’s 2005 law legalizing same-sex marriage explicitly applies those rights to the marriage issue: “For greater certainty, no person or organization shall be deprived of any benefit, or be subject to any obligation or sanction” based solely on objections to same-sex marriage or “the expression of their beliefs in respect of marriage as the union of a man and woman to the exclusion of all others.”
TWU, a private, faith-based institution in Langley, B.C., plans to open a law school that serves 60 students and would focus on charity and small-business legal training.
TWU praised the decision and reiterated its policy to welcome all students, regardless of sexual orientation, as long as they agree to live the Christian values detailed in the community covenant.
“The freedom to believe as we choose and practice accordingly is one of the most profound privileges we have as Canadians,” said university spokeswoman Amy Robertson. “We are a diverse, pluralistic society, committed to respecting one another even when we disagree.”
The November ruling means TWU’s future law school graduates can practice law in B.C., but it is not the end of the school’s legal battle. TWU is appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada a June appeals court decision that found the law society in Ontario could legally refuse to recognize future TWU law school graduates.
It won’t be the first time TWU has gone before Canada’s high court over its community covenant: In 2001 the Supreme Court of Canada — in an 8-to-1 decision — ruled the British Columbia College of Teachers could not withhold accreditation for TWU’s teacher education program.
Many observers believe TWU’s law school saga is a bellwether for religious freedom in North America. In their unanimous opinion, the five appeals court judges noted the broader principles at stake: “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.”
— by J.C. Derrick