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Supreme Court of Canada rules against TWU in fight over law school

Law Societies in B.C. and Ontario say Langley university’s community covenant is discriminatory

The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld the right of two Canadian Law Societies to refuse accreditation for a proposed law school at Trinity Western University.

Both the Law Societies of B.C. and Ontario say their objections arise from a community covenant that discriminates against LGBTQ students.

The LSBC initially approved the law school at the private Christian university in Langley, but later withdrew that approval because of controversy over the covenant all students and staff at TWU are expected to sign.

It asks students to abstain from sexual intimacy outside of marriage, which is defined as between a man and a woman.

Critics complained the clause was anti-gay and would violate a lawyer’s duty to represent all clients.

READ MORE: TWU ‘disappointed with provincial decision to nix Christian law school

“There can be no question that the LSBC was entitled to consider an inequitable admissions policy in determining whether to approve the proposed law school. Its mandate is broad,” the judgment states.

“In promoting the public interest in the administration of justice and, relatedly, public confidence in the legal profession, the LSBC was entitled to consider an admissions policy that imposes inequitable and harmful barriers to entry.”

The court ruled that the LSBC decision “did not limit religious freedom to a significant extent…”

While Canadian law protects the rights of people to hold personal religious beliefs, that right has to be balanced against the effect they have on other people, the court found.

“In this case, the effect of the mandatory covenant is to restrict the conduct of others. The LSBC’s decision prevents the risk of significant harm to LGBTQ people who feel they have no choice but to attend TWU’s proposed law school. These individuals would have to deny who they are for three years to receive a legal education. Being required by someone else’s religious beliefs to behave contrary to one’s sexual identity is degrading and disrespectful.”

In a separate ruling regarding the Law Society of Upper Canada (Ontario) the decision states:

“In our view, the LSUC was entitled to conclude that equal access to the legal profession, diversity within the bar, and preventing harm to LGBTQ law students were all within the scope of its duty to uphold the public interest in the accreditation context, which necessarily includes upholding a positive public perception of the legal profession.”

READ MORE: TWU law school battle continues with appeal of Supreme Court decision

READ MORE: B.C. top court rules in favour of Trinity Western in fight over law school

Following the ruling, TWU’s Janet Epp Buckingham told reporters the university “will not be starting a law school in the near future and we will have to consider our options to determine how we are going to go forward.”

Epp Buckingham said the law school has been a dream of hers for 25 years.

“I’m very disappointed to see the end of this dream as it was.”

In a release issued Friday, Trinity Western University expressed disappointment in the decision, which it said, “diminishes the value of pluralistic diversity in Canada.”

“The Court ruling constrains TWU’s quest to establish a law school and offer 60 new law school seats to Canadian students,” the release continued.

“We feel this is a lost opportunity for Canadians, many of whom do not have affordable access to justice,” said Earl Phillips, executive director of TWU’s proposed law school.

“There are only three common law schools in Canada that offer a course in charity law. The TWU law school would have offered a specialty in charity law.

“Without question, the Trinity Western community is disappointed by this ruling. However, all Canadians should be troubled by today’s decision that sets a precedent for how the courts will interpret and apply Charter rights and equality rights going forward,” said Phillips.

Conservative Langley-Aldergrove MP Mark Warawa weighed in on the decision, saying he is “surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision in these two cases.

“Conservatives are calling on law societies across the country to admit graduates who exercise their Charter right to freedom of religion and expression,” Warawa said in a statement issued Friday.

“I worry that these decisions will erode our right to believe and express those beliefs in Canada.”

A news release from B.C.’s Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training stated that while the office will need time to review the rulings, “it appears consistent with our government’s values. Our government continues to work to build a just and inclusive province where all feel welcome, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion or background.”

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