"If the rule of law means anything in Canada...lawyers will respect rulings of Canada's highest court."
It is easy to apply a label, even easier if it avoids looking deeply at a complex situation. Someone recently did this asking that Dr. Seuss’s book Hop on Pop be banned because it promotes violence against fathers. A quick read shows that the book promotes the opposite: don’t hop on pop! But the complainant opted to judge the book by its cover.
Those who oppose a law school at Trinity Western University (TWU) apply this same sort of reductionism. Their pejorative and emotive labelling attempts to blacklist graduates of a law school based on prejudicial grounds. TWU has been labelled “anti-gay” and “homophobic” on the basis of a Community Covenant affirmed by all faculty, students and staff.
In the tradition of 800 years of Western education, TWU is a university that resembles many others. It offers 43 undergraduate programs and 17 graduate programs. It is, by any definition, a university. It encourages critical thinking. But it is, unapologetically, also a Christian university as most of our first universities were. As part of the Christian ethos TWU encourages spiritual development, volunteerism and care for the vulnerable.
TWU is a Christian liberal arts and professional university. It has been a respected part of B.C higher education since 1962. TWU alumni serve in a broad range of professions in Canada and in 80 countries across the world. Consistently, TWU receives top rankings for excellence in education.
Many graduates of TWU pursue further studies (including law). A law school was a natural next step in developing TWU’s professional education options. In other jurisdictions, particularly in the United States, having legal education delivered by a private, faith-based institution is common and accepted as adding to the diversity of educational choices.
The tone and demeanor of the accreditation debate over TWU’s law school is most unfortunate. This is surprising, disheartening and even alarming considering TWU has been down this road before.
TWU began developing its law school proposal in 2007 with a vision for training lawyers for practice in small and medium sized firms, particularly in under-served areas. This requires a curriculum with a strong skills-focus. The proposal also incorporates TWU’s expertise in leadership development and experiential learning.
After developing the basis for the proposal, TWU consulted with various stakeholders including the Canadian Council of Law Deans, the B.C branch of the CBA and the Law Society of British Columbia. All expressed interest in our proposal and support for its basic vision. None expressed concern about the university or its policies.
The TWU submitted its proposal to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the B.C Minister of Advanced Education. Both completed extensive reviews over 18 months, which included a site visit from an expert review panel, and two rounds of follow up questions from the FLSC. These regulatory bodies commended the strength, integrity and soundness of the proposed program.
During the review process, TWU’s Community Covenant became publicly contentious. TWU is a distinct community and has always had a covenant that reflects the deeply held religious beliefs of its membership (read it for yourself on the TWU website: http://www.twu.ca). It sets standards that members of the community agree to live by while part of the TWU community, standards that reflect the Christian principles for how the community lives together. This includes a definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, which reflects the religious beliefs of the community.
The tone and demeanor of the accreditation debate over TWU’s law school is most unfortunate. This is surprising, disheartening and even alarming considering TWU has been down this road before.When TWU applied for approval of its teacher education program, the British Columbia College of Teachers refused approval based on a previous version of the community standards document that specifically prohibited homosexual behaviour. TWU brought a judicial review of the decision and won at every level of court.
The Supreme Court of Canada decision in TWU v. British Columbia College of Teachers (2001) is an 8 to 1 decision ordering the BCCT to approve TWU’s program. The court ruled that refusal to approve the TWU program infringed the minority religious rights of students. It set out an approach to balancing rights requiring a decision maker to attempt to delineate the rights to maximize both. In applying this to TWU, the court ruled that absent evidence that graduates would be discriminatory, a professional body could not ban graduates from professional accreditation.
The FLSC appointed a Special Advisory Committee to review issues related to the Community Covenant. This committee obtained a legal opinion from noted constitutional law expert, John Laskin, who concluded that the 2001 TWU decision is still good law. The Committee advised that the Community Covenant was not a barrier to approval of the TWU law school.
The Law Society of Upper Canada also obtained legal opinions which echoed Laskin’s. The majority of Benchers in BC (20-6) also agreed. It is disconcerting that lawyers and legal academics opposed to TWU continue to make arguments purportedly based on the Constitution and the rule of law that fly in the face of the Supreme Court’s ruling. If the rule of law means anything in Canada, it certainly must mean that lawyers will respect rulings of Canada’s highest court.
If that were not enough, the law that redefined marriage (Civil Marriages Act) states, “it is not against the public interest to hold and publicly express diverse views on marriage.” Yet those opposed to accreditation seek to ban graduates of TWU before the law school has accepted its first class. Talk about banning a book before you have read it!
TWU is not a public university; it is a private Christian university in accordance with its founding legislation. It is a choice for students to come to the university. Canada is a pluralistic country that should embrace institutional diversity and is mature enough for a law school at TWU.
About the Author
Janet Epp Buckingham is an associate professor at Trinity Western University and director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre.
Read the other position of this debate
Yes to the Christian law school, no to the discriminatory Community Covenant | Douglas Judson