More than 1,000 law students and alumni from eight law schools across Canada have voiced their objection to a Christian university’s bid to establish its own law school in BC because the university upholds a policy that discriminates against gay students.
In their letters addressed to the Federation of Canadian Law Societies, which determines whether common-law degree programs meet requirements set out by Canadian law societies, they object to Trinity Western University’s (TWU) pending application because of its community covenant, which students must sign upon admittance.
Trinity Western’s covenant explicitly holds students responsible for upholding biblical teachings, which means that premarital sex and homosexuality are not permitted. 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.
“Law school is already incredibly stressful, highly competitive, intense, and we don’t need the added stress of being discriminated against by the institution, says Allison Vanek, who is an executive member of OUTLaw, a group for LGBT students and faculty at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law. “Here at the University of Ottawa we receive nothing but acceptance from faculty, staff and students at our school, and having that support is directly related to our success in law school and that would be helpful and relevant to any law student.
“How is a school with such a covenant supposed to educate a student in law school on these subjects of same-sex marriage and cases about queer families, same-sex adoption, assisted human reproduction?” Vanek asks. “Those are all going to be relevant in the coming years.”
The letters, which came from the law schools at the University of Victoria, the University of British Columbia, the University of Alberta, the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Ottawa, Université du Québec à Montréal, York University and Dalhousie University, also question the ability of Trinity Western to adequately train lawyers who are committed to upholding Charter values of equality.
“Personally, I feel that if you’re going to have a religious institution, especially one that is educating lawyers, then you need to teach the law within the parameters of what the law actually is in Canada,” says Chelsey Roy, who is co-chair of Dal Outlaws, the LGBT student society at Dalhousie’s law school. “You need to teach the state of the law; you can’t be teaching your students that religious rights trump equality of gays, because that’s actually not the law in Canada. That’s our concern.
“The policies that Trinity Western has in place would not allow for an appropriate legal education,” Roy claims. “Students that come to this university sign a four-page contract that’s heavily reliant on biblical passages and cites those passages like they are laws that people must abide by. People can certainly have those beliefs in their personal life, that’s totally fine, but you can’t teach people that in a law school because that’s not the state of Canadian law. “
In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld TWU’s right to teach Christian values — even if they are homophobic. The high court found the university’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.
A Trinity Western spokesperson says that their future law students will be properly trained to deal with queer clients.
“The proposed School of Law at TWU will first and foremost be a law school where students thoroughly research, study and engage with, all areas of law,” the spokesperson said in an email to Xtra. “A key learning objective of the proposed School of Law is that students will be prepared to serve clients in all areas of law.”
In 2009, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) published a report titled Report of an Inquiry Regarding Trinity Western University, which found that the university’s policy on academic freedom allowed for “unwarranted and unacceptable constraints on academic freedom.” CAUT recommended that Trinity Western be placed on a list of institutions “found to have imposed a requirement of a commitment to a particular ideology or statement as a condition of employment.”
The report also says TWU “recognizes academic freedom only ‘from a stated perspective, ie, within parameters consistent with the confessional basis of the constituency to which the University is responsible.’
“The subsequent assurance of free enquiry within these restrictions does not ensure genuine academic freedom,” it states.
In a March 19 press release, Trinity Western University says it is known as “a community built on principles of acceptance, respect and compassion” but notes it is also “a private, faith-based community and was chartered by the Legislature of British Columbia to be such.
“As a faith-based community, TWU does have core religious beliefs and values and, we trust, has the religious freedom in Canada to maintain such without penalty or discrimination,” the release states.
It further notes that Trinity Western’s submitted proposal for a law school was rigorously researched and developed in consultation with many lawyers, judges, academics, as well as other leaders, and points out that while it will be the first faith-based law school in Canada, there are approximately 30 in the United States.
“A lot of these people will be lawyers who we’ll be practising with,” says Julie DeWolf, a vice-president of the Law Students’ Society at the University of Victoria. “They will bring in challenges to help laws grow and develop, and if they are in a learning environment that doesn’t foster the values of the Charter, especially in one area, how will that affect how they practise the law?” DeWolf asks.
“We are the future lawyers, future judges, future lawmakers, and if our roots within the law are tainted, how is that going to affect how the law unfolds in the future? That’s what scares me a little.”
Jill Bishop, a third-year law student at the University of Saskatchewan, says that she did not feel Trinity Western was a safe and supportive place to come out when she was an undergraduate student there from 2006 to 2010.
Bishop notes that she had an excellent academic experience and enjoyed a good relationship with her teachers in a small class environment. She does, however, recall that the school’s religious stance on academic freedom, as well as the covenant, limited the scope of classroom discussions and dialogues.
“When it comes to classroom discussion, it definitely plays a role with openness of students,” she says. “That kind of learning is very essential to law learning. A lot of my learning at law school is listening to diverse opinions on contentious issues, and I felt that was lacking at Trinity Western.”