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The Cardus Daily

What’s all the fuss about Trinity Western University?

Janet Epp Buckingham  |  February 10, 2014  |  Law, Religion, Vocation

“Not again!” That’s all I could think when I started getting emails a few weeks ago that there was a new campaign against accreditation of TWU’s law school.

A group of us at Trinity Western started working in earnest on a proposal for a law school over five years ago. We visited American Christian law schools. We read books on the latest law school theories. We developed a vision, then a framework, then a curriculum to support the vision. We met with lawyers, judges, professors, and law deans in Canada. We consulted with the BC Law Society and the BC branch of the Canadian Bar Association. We revised our proposal. We prayed.

Finally, in June 2012, we submitted our proposal to the BC Minister of Advanced Education and to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada. Because it is a professional program, we require government approval and that of the professional association.

A great deal of controversy arose over the proposal.

It’s all because the university has a community covenant. Some people hate the very idea of constraints on behaviour. But faculty, staff, and students agree to abide by its guidelines. Aside from encouraging a variety of positive behaviours such as love, joy, peace, wellness, and respect for others, we all agree to keep sexual intimacy for marriage. As in many evangelical Christian communities, marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman.

Trinity Western has faced opposition to approval of its professional programs in the past. In the mid-1990s, the university brought a legal challenge to a negative decision on its education program. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in our favour in 2001. It was that ruling that led us to believe that we would be accredited when it came to a law school. Surely lawyers would recognize the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada!

Both the BC Minister of Advanced Education and the Federation of Law Societies of Canada granted approval to the proposal in December 2013. After heated media debate, the Federation had set up a Special Advisory Committee just to deal with Trinity Western’s Community Covenant. The special committee concluded that there is “no public interest reason to exclude future graduates of the program from law society bar admission programs.”

But that was not sufficient for those who stand opposed to Trinity Western. Those opposed have been writing letters and lobbying at provincial law societies. Many of these law societies had delegated their responsibility to accredit new law schools to the Federation, but they are being urged to take that responsibility back.

This means that Trinity Western is now facing several different processes across the country. The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society is holding a public hearing and inviting written submissions. The Law Society of British Columbia has invited public submissions. Ontario will have some process yet to be determined.

Law faculties across the country are passing resolutions denouncing Trinity Western. It is hard to be a Christian law student or professor these days!

Some of these law school resolutions make personal attacks on faculty and administration at Trinity Western. The UBC law school resolution suggests that the Law Society should consider disbarring any lawyer who works at Trinity Western and enforces the Community Covenant. No doubt they are aware that the president and vice-provost of the university are lawyers.

Another letter from a University of Saskatchewan professor questioned whether a law school at a university which recognizes divine law will teach students about the rule of law, an important legal concept meaning that everyone is subject to the law. The rule of law also implies accepting Supreme Court of Canada decisions, like TWU v. BCCT. But this professor was arguing against that very Supreme Court decision.

Ultimately, however, the fuss is over the Community Covenant and its definition of marriage. The question is whether there is one imposed definition of marriage or whether we have marriage pluralism in Canada.

The Civil Marriage Act redefined marriage in 2005 for civil purposes. It specifically states “nothing in this Act affects the guarantee of freedom of conscience and religion and, in particular, the freedom of members of religious groups to hold and declare their religious beliefs” and “it is not against the public interest to hold and publicly express diverse views on marriage.” That seems clear enough.

But it is not clear enough for law deans, law professors, and lawyers. They want one definition imposed on everyone. Never mind that marriage has been a religious practice for 2000 years. The state redefined marriage and everyone, including churches, must fall into line.

This rides roughshod over freedom of religion and equality on the basis of religion as guaranteed in the Charter. It also ignores the painstaking care the Federation took to consider all the issues.

Let’s hope reason rules the day and lawyers and law professors respect what the law says.

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