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Supreme Court to hear appeals about Trinity Western University law school

The dispute stems from Trinity Western University’s so-called community covenant, which bans sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

The Supreme Court of Canada agreed Thursday to hear two appeals involving a private Christian university that demands all students sign a code of conduct forbidding sexual intimacy outside heterosexual marriage.

Trinity Western University has been seeking accreditation in all provinces for future graduates of its proposed law school but has faced pushback from law societies in Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia over its controversial conduct code.

The Ontario and British Columbia cases, which pit religious freedom against equality rights, are now before the country's top court.

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Trinity Western's "community covenant" or code of conduct requires students to abstain, among other things, from obscene language, harassment, lying, stealing, pornography, drunkenness and sexual intimacy "that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman."

Critics say it discriminates against people in the LGBTQ community who are looking to enter the legal profession.

But the university, which is located in the Fraser Valley community of Langley, B.C., and enrols about 4,000 students annually, has said its law school will allow evangelical Christians to study law in an environment that supports their beliefs.

It also notes that it does not ban admission to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender students or faculty, and said its community offers "an environment in which sexual minorities are supported, loved and respected."

The university said Thursday that it was pleased the Supreme Court would resolve the issue.

"We believe that the court will protect the TWU religious community," university president Bob Kuhn said in a statement.

The university added that most jurisdictions in Canada have recognized its bid to operate a law school as "a positive step that increases the number of law school spaces in Canada."

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In Ontario, the Law Society of Upper Canada voted in April 2014 not to accredit Trinity Western's planned law facility, citing its controversial covenant as discriminatory.

That prompted a court fight that involved the Court of Appeal for Ontario siding with the law society after finding the university discriminated against the LGBTQ community. Trinity Western then said it would take its fight to the Supreme Court.

In British Columbia, however, the university scored a victory in November when an appeal court overturned that province's law society's refusal to accredit the school's law graduates.

Trinity Western was also engaged in a legal fight with the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society, but that regulatory body decided not to go further after the province's appeal court denied its efforts to prevent the university's law graduates from getting accreditation.

The Federation of Law Societies of Canada approved recognizing Trinity Western's law graduates, as did law societies in the remaining seven provinces.

Trinity Western's law school was originally slated to open in 2016, but that date has since been pushed back to the fall of 2018.

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