By a 3-to-1 margin, member lawyers of the Law Society of British Columbia voted Tuesday to reverse a previous decision to recognize future graduates from the planned Trinity Western University School of Law.
Although thousands of lawyers participated in the nonbinding vote, it was a purely symbolic measure: The ultimate decision to approve Trinity Western’s law school lies in the hands of the society’s governing “benchers,” who are similar to a board of directors. In April, the benchers voted 20-6 to authorize the country’s first Christian law school, even though the university requires all students, faculty, and staff to sign a community covenant restricting sexual activity to traditional marriages.
In response, British Columbia attorney Michael Mulligan, who claims Trinity Western’s policy is discriminatory, led an effort to gather signatures that would force a special general meeting of the province’s 11,000 lawyers. The general meeting took place in more than a dozen locations around British Columbia, and Tuesday night the society announced members voted 3,210 to 968 to direct the benchers to reconsider.
“We won!” Mulligan tweeted after the vote.
Jan Lindsay, president of the Law Society of British Columbia, in a statement said she and other benchers would give the matter “serious and thoughtful consideration,” but she made no promises: “The decision regarding whether to admit graduates from the proposed law school at TWU is a Bencher decision.”
Bob Kuhn, Trinity Western University president, said a vocal group of lawyers organizing a general meeting should not undermine the benchers’ April ruling. “Difficult decisions involving fundamental rights and freedoms should not be decided by popular opinion,” Kuhn said in a statement. “In a free and democratic society, the faith of TWU graduates cannot preclude them from practicing law.”
Trinity Western first submitted its proposal for an accredited law program in 2012. In December 2013, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education issued back-to-back approvals, citing “no public interest reason” not to grant preliminary permission. Provincial law societies, including Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island, all followed with votes to accept Trinity Western graduates, but societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia narrowly voted not to recognize them.
Although the school has secured mobility agreements—meaning its graduates could pass the bar in one province then move to another—last month Trinity Western announced it would pursue legal action to ensure its future graduates are recognized in every province. The university believes the controversy over its community covenant was sufficiently settled in 2001, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 8 to 1 that Trinity Western could have an accredited teaching program and leave its Christian beliefs in tact.
“We feel that landmark decision needs to be respected,” said Kuhn, an attorney who led Trinity Western’s legal team in 2001. He noted Canada’s 2005 same-sex marriage law “recognizes that it is not against public interest to hold and publicly express diverse views on marriage.”
Opponents say the 2001 court decision addressed teachers’ ability to teach fairly, whereas the current complaint claims the school policy excludes homosexual applicants. In April, a gay activist in Vancouver sued Amrik Virk, the British Columbia Minister of Advanced Education, saying he should not have approved the Trinity Western law school because its admissions policy is discriminatory.
Religious liberty advocates in the United States and Canada believe the fate of Trinity Western’s law school is a bellwether for religious freedom in North America.