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Matthew Wigmore, an openly gay student at Trinity Western University, is shown outside his dormitory in Langley, B.C., on Feb. 21, 2014. (RAFAL GERSZAK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Matthew Wigmore, an openly gay student at Trinity Western University, is shown outside his dormitory in Langley, B.C., on Feb. 21, 2014. (RAFAL GERSZAK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Inside Trinity Western’s struggle between faith and equality Add to ...

The latter includes activities like the Hootenanny – a production of skits, performances and dancing that takes place every semester – and Gotcha!, a week-long, campus-wide “assassin” game in which students sneak-attack each other with water. Since joining Canadian Interuniversity Sport in 1999, the university’s athletics teams – the Trinity Western Spartans – have won eight national titles in men’s volleyball and women’s soccer and two individual titles in track and field. Chapel is often at capacity, with about 300 people attending every morning.

The outcry began shortly after the university submitted a proposal in June, 2012, to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and B.C.’s Ministry of Advanced Education to open the country’s first faith-based law school. The three-year program would accept 60 students a year starting in September, 2016, according to the proposal.

The federation’s approval committee gave the proposed law school preliminary go-ahead last December, noting that its mandate is limited to determining whether a program would produce graduates competent for admission into law society bar programs. A special advisory committee had addressed the issues relating to the community covenant agreement and concluded that “as long as the national requirement is met, there is no public-interest reason to exclude future graduates of the TWU program from law society bar admission programs,” according to a Dec. 16 news release from the federation. Two days later, B.C. Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk approved the law school.

This is not the first time TWU has been the focus of criticism for its community covenant: In 1995, the B.C. College of Teachers (BCCT) refused accreditation to the university over the same clause. The case made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where a judge eventually ruled in favour of the university, noting “the proper place to draw the line is generally between belief and conduct.”

“Absent concrete evidence that training teachers at TWU fosters discrimination in the public schools of B.C., the freedom of individuals to adhere to certain religious beliefs while at TWU should be respected,” the court said in a 2001 judgment. “The BCCT, rightfully, does not require public universities with teacher education programs to screen out applicants who hold sexist, racist or homophobic beliefs. For better or for worse, tolerance of divergent beliefs is a hallmark of democratic society.”

Given that victory, and the fact TWU has already cleared a number of regulatory hurdles this time, Mr. Kuhn said he is surprised by the current backlash. “On the other hand, I guess one should never be surprised by positions that people take up when perhaps they don’t know the whole story,” he said.

Mr. Kuhn graduated from what was then called Trinity Western College in 1972 with an Associate of Arts diploma. He then earned a law degree from the University of British Columbia and has been a practising lawyer for 35 years. He scoffs at suggestions the proposed law school would somehow offer substandard legal education.

“If I believe – which I do – that same-sex couples are not part of the traditional Christian worldview, and therefore constitute something that is outside of my belief system, does that make me a lesser lawyer? I’ve represented gays and lesbians, I’ve represented all kinds of people I disagree with at a personal level, and I think I’ve done a reasonably good job of it.”

While all professors must commit to the university’s statement of faith, school administrators say professors have some leeway in their approaches to teaching. Dr. Healey, the history professor, said it is her responsibility as a scholar and academic to introduce her students to all positions – not just those from a faith perspective.

“That means that we discuss issues of homosexuality, we discuss issues of gender identity in the classroom,” said Dr. Healey, who previously taught in the public university system. “It’s not, ‘This is the right answer,’ but, ‘This is how we interrogate these ideas.’ ”

In such an environment, students feel more comfortable asking questions “that would never be asked at a public university,” she said. When ideas conflict, conclusions are challenged.

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