Support for Religious Freedom in British Columbia

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. 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- at [193].

The latest decision in the long-running Trinity Western University law school saga, from the Court of Appeal for British Columbia, is an encouraging development for religious freedom in Canada. In Trinity Western University v. The Law Society of British Columbia,
2016 BCCA 423 (1 Nov 2016) the Court of Appeal held that the decision of the Law Society of British Columbia to refuse accreditation to practice law in the Province, to graduates of a new proposed TWU law school, was unlawful. That decision had been based on the “Community Covenant” required of all students at the confessionally evangelical TWU, to (among other things) “abstain from… sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman”. The Court held that the Law Society had failed to give proper consideration to the impact on the religious freedom of TWU students and graduates in making its decision.

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Is Christianity inconsistent with a professional legal education?

This may sound like an odd question, but it is one that has been raised in Canada recently with the application of a Christian University there, Trinity Western, to offer a law degree. The University has a policy which has attracted the ire of some, which requires students to adhere to Biblical standards of sexual behaviour while pursuing their course. This would mean that sexual intercourse outside marriage was precluded, both for heterosexual and homosexual couples. Interestingly the ban on heterosexual sex does not seem to have caused the problem, but the ban on homosexual sex has been interpreted as meaning that homosexual persons would not be able to study law at TWU. Under the Canadian system for accrediting legal practitioners, each Province’s Law Society must approve a particular law degree for its graduates to be able to practice law in that Province, and while at the early stages TWU had received approval from many of the Provincial Law Societies, more recently a number have either refused or reversed an earlier decision to approve.

See here for a detailed comment on the issues as they emerged when the matter was first discussed at the beginning of 2013.

The most recent news update I have seen, here, reports that the New Brunswick Law Society has, by a narrow vote, re-affirmed its support for accreditation. This seems to mean that overall 3 Provinces have now officially voted against accreditation, 2 (including New Brunswick) have voted in favour, and 2 others have not taken a final position. It will be interesting to see whether those who are supposed to be the defenders of the rule of law in Canada, the lawyers, are willing to support freedom of religion, or instead are determined to characterise an adherence to established Biblical morality as “homophobic”. As noted in my 2013 piece, the overall implications for the involvement of committed Christians in public life generally are fairly disturbing. Still, since the Supreme Court of Canada in 2001 has already decided that TWU could train teachers for Canada, I have some hope that if the matter proceeds through the courts the SCC will once again find in favour of religious freedom.

To quote from my previous paper:

Of course it need not be said that if students or staff at TWU engage in unlawful discrimination while studying or teaching, or once they have graduated, then the law will apply to them. But the argument that TWU ought not to be accredited to graduate lawyers boils down in the end to an argument that no-one holding to a Biblical view of sexual morality is fit to hold public office in a Western society today. It is an argument that is not legally sound in Canadian law, and ought to be rejected by anyone who supports a balanced view of human rights, which includes not only anti-discrimination rights, but rights of freedom of religion.