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Trinity Western University President and Chancellor Bob Kuhn has defended the university’s community covenant as a matter of freedom of religion. (Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail)
Trinity Western University President and Chancellor Bob Kuhn has defended the university’s community covenant as a matter of freedom of religion. (Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail)

B.C. government sued over approval of Trinity Western law school Add to ...

A lawsuit against B.C.’s government is seeking to quash provincial approval for a controversial new law school at a faith-based university that prohibits same-sex intimacy.

The challenge, filed with the Supreme Court of B.C. on Monday by five lawyers, aims to overturn Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk’s December decision to green-light Trinity Western University’s proposed law school. The university hopes to launch the program in 2016, but its policy on homosexuality has drawn the ire of gay-rights advocates and a host of lawyers.

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The lawsuit marks the latest setback for Trinity Western in a process that has sparked debates across Canada about how to reconcile equality rights with claims of religious freedom. The private, evangelical school in Langley, B.C., enforces what it calls a community covenant requiring staff and students to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”

When giving his approval in December on academic grounds, Mr. Virk said questions such as whether the covenant violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are “outside the purview of our government” and the proposal meets academic standards.

Clayton Ruby, a prominent civil-rights and criminal lawyer who is helping lead the court challenge, argues Mr. Virk is “just wrong” and “had to consider” the Charter when making a decision. Should the lawsuit fail with B.C.’s court, he is prepared to go to the Supreme Court of Canada.

“I understand why a minister would not want to deal with a hot potato, but it’s his potato,” Mr. Ruby said. Approving a law school that is subject to Trinity Western’s covenant is “degrading and unacceptable for a Canadian government – and illegal.”

Mr. Ruby’s Toronto-based firm, Ruby Shiller Chan Hasan, and lawyers from Vancouver-based Janes Freedman Kyle Law Corporation, are suing the minister, but not the university. They contend the province had a duty to consider how accrediting the law school might violate Charter guarantees of equality and even freedom of religion, and the minister must ensure the province’s students have equal access to law schools.

Mr. Virk confirmed in a statement that the government must respond to the lawsuit by April 29.

“It would be inappropriate to comment before the legal response is filed,” he said.

The public face of the lawsuit is its petitioner, 25-year-old Trevor Loke, an openly gay Anglican and Vancouver Park Board commissioner who discovered his sexuality at age 15 and struggled revealing it to his family. He hopes to begin law school in 2016, and while he says Trinity Western’s members have a right to their beliefs, he thinks the university is using religion as “a shield for discrimination” in this case.

“I don’t think that, under Canadian values, opportunities should be restricted based on who people are,” Mr. Loke said. “For me, this is a very personal thing.”

Trinity Western will press ahead with its plans, confident its approvals will be upheld. “This is a matter of religious freedom, and I believe that the Canadian people are not prepared to push it into a corner such as to reduce its importance in Canadian culture,” said president Bob Kuhn.

Several provincial law societies have launched their own reviews to debate whether to accredit future Trinity Western law graduates in light of concerns over the community covenant, with Ontario’s and Nova Scotia’s set to vote in late April.

But Trinity Western won a significant decision last Friday when benchers at the Law Society of B.C. voted 20 to 6 in favour of accrediting the proposed law school, electing after debate to guard the right to freely practise religious beliefs.

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