Ontario's law society has refused to accredit a new law school at a faith-based university over a policy prohibiting same-sex intimacy that some say is discriminatory.
The rebuke is a major setback to Trinity Western University's ambitions, coming from the largest and oldest law society in Canada, which counts some 46,000 lawyers as members and has never denied such a request. And it is sure to bolster determined opposition to the law school, including a court challenge, from lawyers and gay rights advocates who say it would unfairly exclude homosexuals.
Many benchers for the Law Society of Upper Canada still struggled with the decision as the second of two days of debate ended on Thursday. Several argued that they felt legally obliged to approve the proposed school because deeply held religious beliefs should not be easily trumped by competing equality rights. But the society ultimately voted 28 to 21, with one abstention, against accrediting the private evangelical Christian school.
Trinity Western's president, Bob Kuhn, vowed to proceed with the plan to open the school in 2016 in spite of the LSUC's decision, even as he suggested the vote "can't help but have a chilling effect on the freedom with which Christians, especially evangelical Christians, feel a part of the society."
The law society's ruling could also create turmoil on a national scale. Some lawyers have voiced concerns that having one provincial law society deny accreditation when other provincial societies have granted it could threaten a new national mobility regime that allows lawyers licensed in one province to practise across Canada. The system took more than a decade to establish, and leaders of the Law Society of Alberta have warned that a decision such as the LSUC's could pose a "direct threat" to mobility agreements.
Anger over Trinity Western's plans has focused on the university's community covenant, a document requiring all staff and students to abstain from "sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman." Detractors say allowing Trinity Western to train only those law students who agree to abide by the covenant is discriminatory.
The debate at Ontario's law society split between those who emphasized the need to uphold current laws that have long allowed Trinity Western to teach professional programs, and who favoured accrediting the law school, and those who see legal opinions on same-sex relationships as rapidly evolving, and felt the society needed to embrace changing attitudes.
"I don't think we should take even a millimetre of a step backward," bencher John Campion said. "We can't do it."
Twenty voting benchers sided with William McDowell, who argued at an April 10 meeting on the issue that religious freedom should not easily be trumped by equality concerns, even as many showed reservations about how to strike the right balance. By refusing accreditation, the LSUC would be voting "to bar students of our profession because they are adherents of a faith," Mr. McDowell said.
Furthermore, the diversity law societies strive to nurture in the profession "includes those with religious beliefs that may be contrary to our own," bencher Barbara Murchie said.
Yet even after an hour-long appeal from Mr. Kuhn, the majority disagreed. "I cannot vote to accredit a law school which seeks to control students in their bedrooms," bencher Howard Goldblatt said.
That leaves the future of Trinity Western's proposal more uncertain than ever. The Law Society of B.C. voted 20 to six to accredit the school on April 11, but this week, criminal lawyer Michael Mulligan collected 1,303 signatures on a petition that will force a special general meeting of the society's whole membership within 60 days to revisit the issue. The Nova Scotia Barristers' Society will vote on Friday on whether to accredit the new law school.
Earlier this month, lawyers in B.C. and Ontario sued the B.C. government in an effort to overturn its approval of Trinity Western's proposal. A university spokesperson said Trinity Western is reviewing its legal options.