A faith-based university is fighting back with legal action after two provincial law societies refused to approve a new law school due to fears it would discriminate against gays and lesbians.
Trinity Western University says it will launch court challenges against the Law Society of Upper Canada, which regulates lawyers in Ontario, and the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society. In late April, both organizations voted narrowly against accrediting future graduates of the school, decrying a university policy barring same-sex intimacy that some say is discriminatory.
The university’s response adds to a tangle of legal concerns that have ensnared the new law school, which is intended to open in the fall of 2016. A group of lawyers has also sued the B.C. government over the province’s decision to accredit the school, and Trinity Western will now join the suit as a respondent. With the balance between religious and equality rights at stake, some experts have even speculated the dispute could one day reach the Supreme Court of Canada.
The controversy centres around a provision in Trinity Western’s community covenant, a code of conduct all staff and students must sign that prohibits, among other things, “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” The university has argued it has a right to uphold a traditional definition of marriage, and points to a 2001 Supreme Court decision that allowed it to open a teachers’ college.
The school’s leadership also claims its members are the ones being persecuted. President Bob Kuhn has said the law societies’ decisions “send the chilling message that you cannot hold religious values and also participate fully in public society,” and he has rallied its supporters, raising money from private donors to help pay mounting legal fees.
“These issues are critically important to the resolution of this conflict between equality rights and the fundamental freedom of religion and conscience,” Mr. Kuhn said in an interview, adding, “I’m anxious to make sure that Trinity isn’t marginalized.”
The university has retained the law firms Bennett Jones and Boyne Clark for its challenges.
In reply, Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society president René Gallant said he was expecting the lawsuit, but “you can’t let the threat of litigation to prevent you from doing the right thing.” The society consulted extensively with lawyers, the public and Trinity Western, he said, and held hours of debate before voting 10 to nine to deny accreditation unless Trinity Western dropped the controversial provision on same-sex intimacy.
“We’re prepared to defend the process that we used and the outcome of that process, and we’re pretty confident that it’ll be seen by the courts that it’s a valid decision,” Mr. Gallant said.
The Law Society of Upper Canada, the country’s oldest and largest law society, “will be responding in due course,” according to a spokesperson.
In the meantime, the debate over the law school has caused unprecedented splintering between the provincial law societies, leaving a national system that guarantees lawyers mobility between provinces uncertain. The Federation of Law Societies of Canada granted its approval last year, and some provincial societies will respect that decision, contradicting Ontario and Nova Scotia.