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British Columbia B.C.’s Trinity Western University drops mandatory covenant forbidding sex outside heterosexual marriage

Students are pictured on campus at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia on November 1, 2016. (BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail)

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia’s Trinity Western University has dropped a requirement that students adhere to a community covenant that forbids sex outside of heterosexual marriage, but says it has no plans to revive its proposal for a law school.

The change, announced on Tuesday, follows a Supreme Court ruling in June that upheld the right of provincial law societies to reject the graduates of the proposed law school. Law societies in B.C. and Ontario argued the mandatory covenant amounted to discrimination against LGBTQ students.

The court case drew more than two dozen groups as intervenors amid a debate about the limits of religious freedom and equality. B.C.'s Ministry of Advanced Education withdrew its preliminary approval of the school after the province’s law society refused to accredit it. The university and several intervenors maintained that the law school should be allowed to operate and that blocking it violated the constitutional protection for religious rights.

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In an interview on Tuesday, Trinity Western president Bob Kuhn said the change, which does not apply to faculty, was not driven by the law-school controversy and that the university has no immediate plans to renew its application.

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“At this point in time, there’s been no decision made for the potential of a law-school application being resubmitted,” Mr. Kuhn said. “If it were, it would require additional work, given that it’s been effectively on hold for the past five years or more.”

In a letter explaining the change to donors, the university said the school was not compromising its values.

“We will remain a Biblically-based, mission-focused, academically excellent university, fully committed to our foundational evangelical Christian principles,” the letter said.

Law societies in B.C. and Ontario said it would be premature to speculate whether they would now be prepared to accept law students from the university. Trinity Western would also require provincial approval to revive its law-school proposal, B.C.'s Advanced Education Minister, Melanie Mark, said in a statement.

Trinity Western, established in 1962, describes itself as Canada’s largest independent Christian liberal arts institution, with an enrolment of 3,600. In 2012, it proposed to create a law school of 170 students, and got preliminary approval from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada.

But the law societies of B.C., Ontario and Nova Scotia refused to accredit it, arguing that to do so would be to endorse discrimination.

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Courts in B.C. and Nova Scotia sided with the school, and Ontario’s top court sided with the provincial law society.

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada said the limit on religious freedom was minor and that accrediting the school would have threatened the integrity of the legal system.

Two dissenting judges said the law societies' decisions interfered with religious freedom and were contrary to the state’s duty of neutrality.

Margot Young, a professor at the Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia, said Tuesday’s announcement was not a surprise, given the resources Trinity Western has put into establishing a law program.

“It really is the only way forward,” she said in an interview.

She said she suspected moving away from a mandatory covenant would be enough to earn the necessary approvals from the B.C. government and provincial law societies, but issues with any prospective program would remain.

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“I have some concerns about a legal-education environment premised on a viewpoint that condemns sexual-orientation diversity,” she said. “And I know that this is a central frame for the teaching at Trinity Western University and so it’s going to be really important that Trinity Western University do a really good job on making sure that its students graduate with not just a tolerance for diversity, but an idea of the importance and the value of diversity.”

Kathryn Chan, an assistant professor of law at the University of Victoria, said Trinity Western’s announcement appeared to be a response to the Supreme Court judgment. She said her view is that Trinity Western is entitled to adopt a faith-based perspective, as long as the terms of admission and treatment of students are not discriminatory.

Matthew Wigmore, a Trinity Western graduate and co-founder of One TWU, a support and networking group for LGBTQ students, said he welcomed the change but still had concerns.

“I think the core thing to understand is that this is not a change in the covenant, it is simply a change in the requirement to sign it,” Mr. Wigmore said in an e-mail.

“Let’s celebrate this as a first step but nothing more – to do so would undermine the mounds of work that need to be done to respect LGBTQ students on campus.”

Archbishop Michael Miller of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver, which was an intervenor at the Supreme Court of Canada, said in a statement that he supports Trinity Western’s decision and hopes it will refile its application to open a law school.

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