The Law Society of British Columbia voted overwhelmingly to approve Canada’s first Christian law school after an emotional hearing Friday that lasted almost three hours.
Trinity Western University (TWU) in Langley, British Columbia, received the accreditation despite intense criticism from gay rights groups and some members of the legal community who claim TWU’s community covenant discriminates against homosexuals. A proposed resolution would have refused to recognize Trinity Western graduates, but it failed on a 20-6 vote.
“We are very pleased with this outcome,” TWU president Bob Kuhn said in a statement, adding that Friday’s result is important for the entire country. “It says that there is room in a democratic country like Canada for a law school at a Christian university.”
Janet Epp Buckingham, a TWU associate professor who helped develop the law school proposal, told me she was pleasantly surprised by the lopsided vote. She attributed it to decision-makers’ familiarity with Trinity Western and its graduates.
Last December, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education issued back-to-back approvals for the law school, citing “no public interest reason” not to grant preliminary permission. But instead of resolving the ongoing controversy, the decisions only served to re-ignite it. Opponents mounted a campaign to convince the Federation’s provincial societies not to recognize TWU School of Law graduates, and the Canadian Council of Law Deans drafted a proposal to bar membership for any institution it deemed discriminatory.
Trinity Western has been here before: The Supreme Court of Canada in 2001 ruled 8-1 in favor of the school’s right to have an accredited teaching program,keeping in tact its community covenant that requires students to “abstain from sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” (It also bans unmarried heterosexual sex, alcohol, tobacco, and other legal activities.)
No claim of actual discrimination has ever been leveled at TWU, but opponents have been planning a lawsuit against the government for approving the law school.
On Jan. 24, the Law Society of British Columbia asked for public comments on the proposed law school, and it received almost 300 in less than six weeks. Trinity Western submitted a 49-page filing, arguing that it had “established beyond any question that its School of Law meets all applicable academic requirements and that students will receive a high quality education that includes both substantive and ethical components.” TWU acknowledged its responsibility to teach Canadian equality law, “including equality based on sexual orientation.”
Critics said the university couldn’t teach the law objectively—or correctly—while standing in opposition to Canada’s legal definition of marriage. But other legal experts noted that laws change all the time and many law schools challenge the status quo on various issues.
Law societies in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island have all announced they will accept TWU graduates, but three others—Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario—have initiated public proceedings similar to those in British Columbia. Buckingham, who attended an all-day proceeding in Ontario on Thursday, said she thinks the testimony and outcome in British Columbia will be helpful for other provinces.
“The people who spoke to the issue made it quite clear the law supports all of the law societies approving the law school,” she said.
Although more decisions lay ahead, Friday’s vote in TWU’s home province was unquestionably its biggest remaining hurdle. Buckingham said the western provinces, from which Trinity Western draws most of its students, have all given approval, and the school already has mobility agreements so students approved in one province will be able to practice law anywhere in Canada.
Trinity Western, a university of about 4,000 students, filed its law school application in 2012 and hopes to have a class of about 60 students in the fall of 2016.