The Law Society of British Columbia is set to make its decision on a Fraser Valley university’s application to open the first faith-based law school in Canada.
The proposal by Trinity Western University (TWU) has already cleared two major hurdles in receiving preliminary approval by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and B.C.’s Ministry of Advanced Education. Provincial law societies now have final say, by way of individual decisions, on whether to accredit TWU’s law program for admission to the bar.
Controversy over the proposal has centred on a clause in the university’s community covenant that prohibits “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” Critics say it discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation and question how the law school would educate students on discrimination and equality rights.
However, supporters counter that to deny the school accreditation solely because of the covenant is in itself discriminatory, and an attack on religious freedom. “That’s an audacious example of prejudice,” university president Bob Kuhn has said.
Somewhere in the middle, lawyers, commentators and advocacy groups alike have preached the importance of diversity, tolerance and having an equal respect for all constitutionally protected rights.
“People who are not members of a particular religion (and even those who are) may not approve of or be comfortable with the beliefs of that faith,” the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said in a statement. “However, the BCCLA’s position … is that the repugnance of a certain set of beliefs even to a majority of Canadians cannot be the basis to deny certain benefits to members of that faith.”
The Law Society of B.C. turned to lawyers and the public, receiving almost 300 written submissions from Jan. 24 to March 3. The society’s board of directors – known as Benchers – is likely to make its decision after hours of discussion at Friday’s Benchers meeting.
TWU submitted its proposal in June, 2012, to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and B.C.’s Ministry of Advanced Education. The federation’s approval committee gave it conditional approval in December, noting that its mandate is limited to determining whether a program would produce graduates competent for admission to law society bar programs.
The federation said it had appointed a special committee to examine issues arising from the covenant and that the committee concluded that as long as the national requirement is met, “there is no public interest reason to exclude further graduates of the TWU program from law society bar admission programs.” Two days later, B.C. Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk approved the law school.
Meanwhile, public consultations continue in other provinces. Ontario’s Law Society of Upper Canada held a meeting on Thursday and is expected to vote on the matter after a second meeting April 24. The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society has held two public meetings and received 185 written and in-person submissions regarding TWU’s application; its executive committee is expected to discuss the matter at a council meeting on April 25. The Law Society of New Brunswick has so far received 35 written submissions and has invited TWU to present at a council meeting on June 27, when it is expected to make its decision. A refusal by any one law society would threaten the mobility of the law school’s graduates.
TWU is a privately funded university, with its main campus located in Langley. According to the university’s proposal, the law school – if approved – would take 60 students a year for a three-year program commencing in September, 2016.