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BC law society votes to reverse TWU approval

Resolution not binding but society says it will be considered

“I support freedom of religion,” lawyer barbara findlay says. “You have every right to believe I am a sinner, but when your religious belief turns into action that discriminates against me, that’s when you cross the line.” Credit: Jeremy Hainsworth

Members of the Law Society of British Columbia passed a resolution, by a vote of 3,210 to 968, at a June 10 special general meeting (SGM) directing the society’s board of directors to declare that the proposed law school at Trinity Western University is not an approved faculty of law.

While section 13 of BC’s Legal Profession Act says that a resolution at a general meeting is not binding on the board, a statement from the society says directors will give the resolution serious and thoughtful consideration.

The board is due to meet June 13.

“The decision regarding whether to admit graduates from the proposed law school at TWU is a Bencher decision,” says president Jan Lindsay. “However, the Benchers will give the result of today’s members meeting serious and thoughtful consideration.”

“This is a complex issue that engages many points of view,” Lindsay says. “There is currently litigation challenging the BC provincial government’s decision to approve a law school at TWU, and litigation in Ontario and Nova Scotia challenging the decision by law societies there not to approve the proposed law school at TWU. Ultimately, I fully expect that the issues raised will be decided by the Supreme Court of Canada.”

Earlier in the day, Vancouver lawyer barbara findlay received a standing ovation from 1,200 BC lawyers as she urged those attending the SGM to vote yes on a motion to overturn the regulator’s April approval of the proposed law school.

For admission to TWU, students must sign a covenant agreeing to uphold Christian biblical teachings, including no premarital sex and no homosexuality. Failure to uphold these commitments, according to the student handbook, could result in discipline, dismissal or a refusal to readmit a student to the university.

The meeting was called after thousands of lawyers demanded a reconsideration of the decision.

“I support freedom of religion,” findlay says. “You have every right to believe I am a sinner, but when your religious belief turns into action that discriminates against me, that’s when you cross the line.”

“It is terrifying to me that the hard-won rights of gay, lesbian and trans people could be turned back in the name of religious freedom,” findlay adds.

TWU president Bob Kuhn says that what’s at stake is the right to hold an opposing view,  “as unpopular as that might be.” And he acknowledged the debate has been a heated one, apologizing if anyone’s feelings had been hurt in that debate. “This is not a matter of political, professional, personal preference or of public opinion,” Kuhn says. “We have rights to ensure the rights of all citizens are protected.”

The Supreme Court of Canada’s 2001 decision in Trinity Western University v British Columbia College of Teachers clearly upheld TWU’s right to teach Christian values to would-be teachers and to insist that incoming students sign its covenant, he says.

The high court found that TWU’s teacher-program graduates are entitled to hold “sexist, racist or homophobic beliefs” as long as they don’t act on them in the public-school classrooms to which they might be assigned.

The June 10 meeting, with lawyers gathering all over the province, was reportedly the largest such gathering of the profession in BC history, attracting thousands throughout the afternoon to vote.

Lawyers were lined up at microphones to speak for and against the motion to overturn the law society’s decision. Others’ voices were piped through speakers into the Vancouver Convention Centre from cities across BC.

Findlay says many lawyers are gay and many are religious. “This is not a case of us versus them,” she says.

BC law society directors, known as benchers, agreed to call the SGM after receiving 1,300 requests from society members to revisit its April decision to accept TWU graduates to the bar.

Victoria lawyer Michael Mulligan circulated the petition. In an April 16 letter, he said granting approval to an institution founded on an offensive and discriminatory policy won’t improve the standard of practice of lawyers in the province.

At the meeting, Mulligan said religious references have resulted in “horrific” abuse of homosexuals throughout history and urged lawyers to vote against the school. “Let’s refuse to stand back in the continuing fight for dignity and civil rights,” he says.

BC Civil Liberties Association president Lindsay Lyster took the opposite tack. She says denying the school would be a denial of the rights of freedom of association on the basis of religious rights as protected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “There are LGBT people who are urging you to vote ‘no,’” she says. “I am one of them.”

British Columbia’s government is facing a lawsuit from lawyers who say its approval of TWU’s school discriminates against people based on sexual orientation and religious grounds. 

Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby told Xtra April 10 that the Ministry of Advanced Education’s December approval of the degree program at the Fraser Valley school violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as the BC law that allowed the university’s founding in 1969. Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk approved TWU’s application Dec 18, saying the province’s Degree Quality Assessment Board reviewed the proposed law degree and found it met the quality assessment criteria for private and out-of-province public institutions.

The Federation of Law Societies of Canada, an umbrella group for territorial and provincial regulators of the legal profession, also approved the application. It examined only whether the proposed law school’s graduates could meet professional requirements for knowledge and competencies needed for entry to the bar admission programs in the Canadian common-law jurisdictions.

Trinity Western University said it would go to court to protect freedom of religion and conscience as important and protected Canadian values after it was denied accreditation by regulators of the legal profession in Nova Scotia and Ontario.

Notwithstanding the lawsuits in BC, Ontario and Nova Scotia, TWU has all the necessary approvals and says it will continue with its plans to launch Canada’s first law school at a faith-based university in September 2016. 

Alberta, Saskatchewan and other provinces have decided to accept TWU graduates. On April 24, the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) voted 28 to 21 not to allow TWU graduates to article or practise law in Ontario.