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Trinity Western University president Bob Kuhn is shown on the university campus in Langley, B.C., on Jan. 30, 2014. (DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Trinity Western University president Bob Kuhn is shown on the university campus in Langley, B.C., on Jan. 30, 2014. (DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Religious rights at risk, B.C. law school with gay-intimacy ban warns alumni Add to ...

Trinity Western University is rallying support for its proposed law school, which faces determined opposition from lawyers and academics, warning alumni that Canadians’ religious freedom “is in peril.”

In an e-mail sent Tuesday, Trinity Western’s vice-president of alumni, Scott Campbell, called on graduates to support the school and asked LGBT alumni “to lend your voice to this important discussion.” Law societies in several provinces are under growing pressure to rethink accrediting future law graduates from the the faith-based university in Langley, B.C., which prohibits same-sex intimacy.

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The missive also points to a video address from university president Bob Kuhn, who says opposition to the new law school goes beyond concerns about training lawyers and “strikes at the very heart of religious freedom in Canada.” Critics argue the school’s ban on sexual intimacy except between a married man and woman is discriminatory, prompting Mr. Kuhn – a lawyer himself – to ask alumni “to stand with us and to pray with us.”

“We cannot stand by and watch while our freedom of religion is left defenceless, only to be beaten and bullied, ultimately thrown from the public marketplace,” Mr. Kuhn says in the video.

Trinity Western plans to open its law school in 2016, having won approvals in December from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and B.C.’s government. But lawyers and law professors are urging provincial law societies, which have the authority to deny accreditation to graduates, to reconsider. If some do, it could delay or even scuttle the school. The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society is undertaking a review, and societies in other provinces, including Ontario, may follow suit.

“There’s a real groundswell of concern,” said Margot Young, a professor in the University of British Columbia’s law faculty, which recently passed a motion pressing the Law Society of B.C. for a similar review.

The ongoing controversy “can’t help but have a personal effect” on some 24,000 alumni, Mr. Kuhn said in an interview. In his video, he casts Trinity Western as an underdog defender of religious rights. Opposition to the school “is very large and loud, well-organized, motivated and single-minded,” he says, and “we are substantially outnumbered.” But Trinity Western is “a safe place where differences of thought are celebrated,” he says.

That has been 22-year-old Bryan Sandberg’s experience. “I love this school,” said the fourth-year, openly gay communications and business major. He feels peers and professors have treated him with respect. But he hid his sexuality for two months after arriving at Trinity Western, and knows only two other students who are openly gay among a body of 4,000.

“If you’re going to say that this is such a loving and great and supportive place, the question I would have is, where are all these gay people? Are they hypothetical abstractions?” he said.

Former student Jill Bishop never told anyone at Trinity Western she was gay. She signed the school’s “community covenant” on her first day in 2006, pledging to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman,” but secretly carried on a same-sex relationship throughout three years as a student.

Now 28, married and articling at a B.C. law firm, she recalls Trinity Western students as less than open with one another. Some professors condemned homosexuality, while others interpreted biblical teachings less literally. “The quality of education is phenomenal,” but she felt “the risk of expulsion was real” if her relationship was discovered.

“Teaching law school in such an environment would be detrimental to students because it really puts a filter on what’s discussed,” she said.

Follow on Twitter: @jembradshaw

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