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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 ...

A month after Matthew Wigmore came out to friends at his evangelical Christian university, he stood before his philosophy of sex and gender class to give a presentation on homosexuality and reparative therapy.

Mr. Wigmore, 19, felt vulnerable. Much of the presentation – which denounced the so-called treatment for homosexuality – was based on uncomfortable personal experiences.

However, the second-year theatre student felt bolstered by a supportive social circle at Trinity Western University, including friend and project partner Dillon James, who is also openly gay.

After a discussion that followed the October presentation, Mr. Wigmore asked if there were any dissenting viewpoints. A hand slowly went up.

“I personally read the King James Version [of the Bible],” the classmate said. “It’s hard for me to see how homosexuality is the right choice. How do you expect to get into heaven?”

A hush fell over the classroom. Before Mr. Wigmore could reply, another classmate interjected: “Well, you’re a woman and you’re speaking right now. Technically, [The Book of] Leviticus doesn’t allow that.”

Added Mr. James: “And you’re wearing a fur coat – something the Old Testament law wouldn’t approve of either.”

The conversation quickly ended, Mr. Wigmore recounts in an interview.

Trinity Western University is embroiled in controversy over a law school it hopes to open at its Langley campus. Critics point to a clause in a community covenant that requires all students, administrators and faculty to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman” and call it discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation. They question how a law school at such a university could possibly educate students on discrimination and equality rights.

The Law Society of B.C. is seeking opinions on whether the law school should go ahead, and Monday is the deadline for submissions. After reviewing reports, statutes and public input, the law society’s board of directors will then give its final word – likely at its April 11 meeting. Law societies in Nova Scotia and Ontario are also running public consultations.

Prominent lawyers, law professors, students and LGBTQ groups across Canada have decried the program as inherently discriminatory. Some firms said they would be unlikely to take TWU law school graduates, potentially limiting their mobility. Prominent Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby called the decision by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada to approve the school “cowardly nonsense.”

At Dalhousie University, law professors unanimously approved a motion urging the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society not to approve the school’s law degrees. “TWU seems to have isolated just one segment of the population for second-class status,” said Archibald Kaiser, the Dalhousie law professor who put forward the motion. “I don’t see how it could possibly be acceptable to demean some members of its student body or to exclude some people from its faculty.”

The university views the criticism as unfair. President Bob Kuhn says it is based on reckless assumptions and calls it an attack on religious freedom in Canada. Robynne Healey, a history professor, co-director of the Gender Studies Institute and chair of the university senate, says she does not recognize the university depicted in the media.

“As a scholar, as a historian, I study people from the past and am pretty conscious of the things that make up their group identity,” she said. “I wonder if the people I study would recognize themselves in the way I write about them, because sometimes I don’t recognize myself in the way Trinity is being represented.”

Founded in 1962 and recognized as a degree-granting institution in 1979, TWU is a privately funded university that aims to combine a Christian worldview with a liberal arts foundation, according to school descriptions. More than 4,000 students attend the school’s four locations – a fifth is expected to open this year – and about 900 live on campus in Langley. According to a 2013 survey of first-year students by the Canadian University Survey Consortium, TWU ranked the highest out of 35 institutions in areas including satisfaction with quality of teaching, accessibility of professors outside of class and involvement in campus activities.

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.

“Issues of equality for women in church leadership, issues of gay marriage – these are all issues that the evangelical community as a whole is wrestling with,” Dr. Healey said. “That wrestling is happening here as well. Every individual faculty member and student doesn’t hold any particular position that is the same on all of those things.”

When Matthew Wigmore enrolled at TWU two years ago, he did not think much of the community covenant, dismissing it as a difference of opinion. A former Bible camp student, Mr. Wigmore still wanted to be part of an educational community that values faith – and is grateful to have found that at TWU, where he lives on campus. With support from his friends in theatre, whom he calls “his rock,” he stopped hiding his sexual orientation last fall.

And then the covenant bothered him.

“I realized I couldn’t take it so much as a difference of opinion, that, in fact, excluding people who don’t desire to marry the opposite gender, outside of ‘God’s intention,’ is frankly alienating, violating and far past the point of differed opinions,” he said.

His friend Mr. James, an American who recently left the university and returned to California for unrelated reasons, concedes TWU is considered liberal in comparison to U.S. Christian universities. But those lines in the covenant still cut deep.

“The university isn’t blatantly anti-gay, but when your moral standpoint is, ‘We find this unacceptable,’ then it’s kind of impossible for the students who are openly gay and don’t agree with your theology to blend in to the community,” he said.

“Instead of being scared of any type of criticism, TWU should learn to accept change when it is healthy, while still guarding [its] religious liberty. Trinity’s climate would not deteriorate in the slightest by opening itself, fully, to gay students.”

Mr. Wigmore said he hopes the controversy would prompt the university to rethink the covenant.

“When you whittle it down to the basis of sexual morality, then suddenly people who are of a different sexual orientation feel like they’re immoral and they’re on a different level than the rest of the students,” he said.

“There are some days that I feel like I’m less of a human being than the other Trinity students because I’m of a different orientation, and I don’t want to feel that way.”

With a report from James Bradshaw in Toronto

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