British Columbia’s government is facing a lawsuit from lawyers who say its approval of Trinity Western University’s (TWU) proposed law school would discriminate against people based on sexual orientation and religious grounds.
Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby told Xtra Apr 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 which allowed the university’s founding in 1969.
To be admitted 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.
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.
Ruby says TWU’s school would impose a “queer quota” on incoming law students. He estimates there are approximately 1,600 seats in Canadian law schools and that the 60 new places proposed by TWU would be off-limits to openly gay students.
“This kind of bigotry is not to be blamed on freedom of religion,” Ruby tells Xtra. “The government is responsible for this bigotry and the harm that flows from it.”
“The government caused Trinity Western to have occasion to do this by issuing consent,” he alleges. “The government of British Columbia is clearly bound by the Charter.”
“They’re the ones on the hook,” he says.
Ruby says the government’s approval violates the Charter’s freedom of religion and equality provisions. He says the law approving the university’s founding also prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, colour or creed.
Creed means religion, Ruby says, which means the government has violated its own law.
Ruby says the case, which is a matter of administrative law, will be filed in BC Supreme Court in Vancouver.
Gay student Trevor Loke is named as the plaintiff bringing the suit against the government, with Ruby and other lawyers behind him.
“Trevor Loke is a Christian,” Ruby says. “He’s a Christian who doesn’t believe being gay is a sin. They discriminate against that class of Christian.”
Loke, 25, is currently a Vancouver parks board commissioner and studying public administration at Thompson Rivers University with an eye on law school in the future.
Loke tells Xtra the Charter exists to protect all people equally and should be applied in cases where people are going to be trained to be public servants such as lawyers.
He says the BC government’s decision to allow TWU, with its covenant, to grant law degrees excludes gays and lesbians.
“They certainly wouldn’t allow someone like me who has been in a relationship for four years,” Loke says. “If I were to go to school there, they would ask me to stop being who I am, ask me to break off my relationship for the time I am at school there.”
He says there is no place for a law school that believes it is exempt from the Charter.
In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld TWU’s right to teach Christian values to would-be teachers and to insist that incoming students sign its covenant.
The 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.
“The factual circumstances are almost identical, and the Supreme Court of Canada has not changed its interpretation of either administrative law principles or balancing of rights in such a manner as to justify the Supreme Court reversing itself,” TWU president Bob Kuhn told Xtra in January.
On April 11, the Law Society of BC agreed. Though many directors expressed concern about TWU's covenant, a majority voted to admit its law graduates to the BC bar, saying the Supreme Court ruling still applies.
Other provincial law societies are still debating whether they'll admit future TWU law graduates to their regional bar associations.
Kuhn tells Xtra the suit is not unexpected as Ruby has been discussing it for some time.
“They can’t stop the BC law society and they’re going after the government. I find it difficult to believe.”
Kuhn says TWU is still planning to open the school despite the suit.
Virk confirms that the Ministry of Advanced Education has been served with the lawsuit. “The deadline for government to respond is April 29,” he tells Xtra. “It would be inappropriate to comment before the legal response is filed.”