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British Columbia B.C. judge agrees to hear several petitions against proposed Christian law school

Trevor Loke

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

A legal battle over a proposed law school at the largest privately funded Christian university in Canada could be tied up in court for years, a leading criminal and civil rights lawyer says.

Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby, who is representing an openly gay Christian man who objects to Trinity Western University's plans to open a law school he feels would be discriminatory, told the Supreme Court of British Columbia on Monday the debate about religious freedoms and same-sex equality rights will not be resolved easily or quickly.

Addressing the court via speaker phone, Mr. Ruby urged Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson to consolidate several petitions and applications that are before the court rather than hearing them separately.

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"All issues should be heard together," he said. "It is not in the public interest for this important question to be bifurcated."

Chief Justice Hinkson agreed to hear several issues over two days later this month.

In an interview later, Mr. Ruby said those hearings will not resolve the legal battle, but will chart the course for a case he expects to go on for some time.

He said that no matter what is decided in B.C. Supreme Court, the matter will likely go to the B.C. Court of Appeal, and beyond that possibly the Supreme Court of Canada.

"Not everybody who thinks their case should go to the Supreme Court of Canada gets there," Mr. Ruby said.

"So it's utterly premature to suggest this case is going to the Supreme Court of Canada, but to get to that stage where you've exhausted your [appeal rights], the ones you can do without permission of the Supreme Court of Canada, that's a three- or four-year process."

The legal battles began after TWU's proposal to open a law school in 2016 triggered a national debate last year. The university, which has about 4,000 students at its Fraser Valley campus, initially got accreditation approvals from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the B.C. Minister of Advanced Education.

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But controversy emerged over the TWU community covenant, an agreement all students must sign that requires them to abstain from "sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman."

The covenant, which TWU regards as central to the Christian identity of the university and the religious rights of Canadians, was described by critics as discriminating against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students.

After the Minister of Advanced Education approved the new law school, Trevor Loke, a 25-year-old who says he wants to go to law school, challenged the government's decision in B.C. Supreme Court.

The ministry subsequently revoked its approval, and then filed an application to strike down Mr. Loke's case as moot.

At about the same time, TWU started legal proceedings against the Law Society of B.C. over its decision not to recognize graduates of the proposed law school.

Chief Justice Hinkson suggested the issue raised by Mr. Loke might be premature because the proposed law school does not have students and therefore none have been obliged to sign the covenant.

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But Mr. Ruby said it would be wrong to wait until students are in the school before resolving the issue.

"If we end up putting all those kids at risk [of getting degrees that aren't accredited], that's not a good thing," he said.

Kevin Boonstra, a lawyer representing TWU, and Karen Horsman of the Ministry of Justice both told court the question of whether Mr. Loke's case is moot should be the first issue decided, but they agreed other issues could be dealt with in the hearing.

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