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Trinity Western University President and Chancellor Bob Kuhn stands for a photograph at the university in Langley, B.C.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

The Law Society of B.C. has cleared the way for a Fraser Valley university to open the first faith-based law school in Canada despite controversy over the school's policy toward gays and lesbians.

Trinity Western University's proposed law school had already cleared two major hurdles in receiving preliminary approval by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada (FLSC) and B.C.'s Ministry of Advanced Education. Provincial law societies now have final say, by way of individual decisions on whether to recognize the law school as an approved faculty of law.

After short but passionate presentations from the society's board of directors – known as Benchers – on Friday, 20 voted against a motion to reject the school, while six voted in favour of it. The decision could set the tone for other provincial law societies, which are expected to make their decisions in coming weeks.

Controversy over the proposal has centred on a clause in the university's community covenant, which all students, administrators and faculty must sign, that prohibits "sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman." Critics say it discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation and question how the law school would educate students on discrimination and equality rights.

On Friday, many of the Benchers referenced a similar case involving TWU and the B.C. College of Teachers. In 1995, the BCCT refused accreditation to the university over the same clause and the case made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In a 2001 judgment, the court ruled in favour of TWU, noting "the proper place to draw the line is generally between belief and conduct."

Bencher David Crossin said the fundamental rights to assemble, and freely and openly practise religious belief, must be jealously guarded. "It is no doubt true that some, or many, or most, find the goals of TWU in the exercise of this fundamental right to be out of step and offensive," he said. "But in my opinion, that does not justify a response that sidesteps that fundamental Canadian freedom in order to either punish TWU for its value system, or force it to replace it. In my view, to do so would risk undermining freedom of religion for all, and to do so would be a dangerous overextension of institutional power."

TWU president Bob Kuhn called the meeting a "great opportunity for an exchange of ideas," and affirmed "the need in a pluralistic society for voices that may not be popular, but are important as part of the dialogue."

Meanwhile, Benchers at the Law Society of Upper Canada in Ontario began making arguments on Thursday and will reconvene on April 24 for a vote. The Nova Scotia Barristers' Society will decide on the matter the following day, and the Law Society of New Brunswick will decide on June 27.

Some lawyers have expressed concerns that if one provincial law society's ruling is different from the others, it could threaten national mobility agreements that allow lawyers licensed in one province to practise across Canada.

With a report from James Bradshaw in Toronto

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