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Toronto students protest Trinity Western University’s bid for a law school

Decisions from Federation of Law Societies of Canada and BC government expected imminently

Law students protest Trinity Western University’s application for law-school accreditation at Osgoode Hall Oct 17. Scott Humphries
Law students, lawyers and concerned citizens gathered Oct 17 to send a message to members of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, which will soon decide if Trinity Western University (TWU), a Christian school in Langley, BC, can have a law school. 
 
The group is angry about the bid because TWU, Canada's largest privately funded Christian university, discriminates against gay people and forces all students to sign a covenant prohibiting any sexual intimacy outside heterosexual marriage. All students, staff and faculty at the school must adhere to the pledge.
 
Approximately 20 people took part in the event at Osgoode Hall. (Check out Xtra's video coverage.)
 
The Federation of Law Societies of Canada is the federal body of law societies that, along with the BC government, will decide whether TWU can have a law school designation. Both decisions are expected imminently.
 
“Right now, the federation is meeting in secret to discuss the proposal,” says Ella Henry, co-chair of the University of Toronto’s Out in Law student group, noting that TWU's covenant seems to indicate "that queer students are not welcome on campus and not welcome in the legal profession." 
 
Members of the federation, including the treasurer, Thomas Conway, did not respond to Xtra's request for comment.
 
Angela Chaisson, a lawyer at Toronto's Ruby Shiller Chan Hasan law firm, is part of the team fighting the proposed accreditation. “[The covenant] violates the core dignity of who you are as a queer person,” she says, noting it also limits the number of coveted law-school spots available to queer students in Canada. It essentially creates a “quota system” for gay and lesbian students, something that would be abhorrent for any other marginalized group, such as Jewish students or students of colour, Chaisson says.
 
“What that means is if you are queer and you want to be a lawyer, you will have fewer opportunities to do so,” she says. “You will have fewer places available to you than your straight counterparts. This is unacceptable.”
 
The Federation of Law Societies of Canada is currently reviewing TWU's application for a three-year program, which it hopes to offer to students starting September 2015. 
 
The federation created a special committee to examine the question “Is there a danger that students from TWU will discriminate against queer people in their practice of law?” That committee has since completed its report.
 
Reached by phone, Toronto lawyer Derry Millar, one member of the committee, declined to provide insight into the decision process or his contribution to the report. He does not know if the report will be made public. “I can’t talk about [the report,]” he says. “I was asked to be on a committee and complete a report, which has now been submitted . . . We were asked to do a specific job, and we did our job. I was not on the approval committee.
 
“There have been only two new law schools in about 25 years. Lakehead University was the first one, and now this one. This doesn’t happen every day,” he says.
 
That’s why Chaisson is calling on the decision-makers to listen to the concerns of queer students. This is not a decision that should be made behind closed doors, she says.
 
“They want this to happen very quietly because it is controversial,” she says. “At the same time, they don’t want to speak up against the Catholic community, the evangelical community or the Christian community.”
 
Jessie Legaree, a TWU graduate, attended the protest to stand in support of the school and its bid for a law school. She defends the covenant and says there are gay students at TWU who signed it.
 
“While it’s true that there is not a huge number of gay students that go to Trinity Western, and I don’t know whether they are open or not, but [if they are] they don’t get expelled or anything like that,” she says. 
 
Regardless, Chaisson says, the covenant forces queer students to stay in the closet. “So if you are a married queer couple, you can’t have sex.”
 
Chaisson says there is a fundamental difference between holding anti-gay views and openly discriminating against gay people.
 
Legaree defends TWU’s right to discriminate, arguing that religious freedom must also be protected. “It’s biblical,” she says.
 
“Canada has protected Christian higher education,” she says. “It’s the same as any other field. There’s nursing shortages, so there’s spots at Trinity Western. I don’t see why the legal field thinks it’s above anything else.”
 
But the role of a lawyer is different than that of a nurse, Chaisson says, noting people can’t divorce themselves from personal beliefs and experience. Since most Canadians support a separation of church and state, she says, it's problematic to train lawyers who would examine cases through a moral lens. 
 
“[Religious belief] will inform your future practice,” Legaree admits. “Faith informs practice, regardless what religion you come from . . . So if you are comfortable signing the covenant and attending TWU, you will sign. I don’t think that will fundamentally change the way you were going to practice anyway. It only creates a community for those who already subscribe to those beliefs.”
 
Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, disagrees. He questions whether students from a school that overtly affirms discrimination would even be eligible for the bar. 
 
He says it’s debatable whether TWU law students would meet the standards to practise law in Canada since the school's policies seems to contradict Canadian law, the Charter and provincial human rights codes across the country.
 
“I would suggest they don’t,” he says. “This is distasteful. Why should we as queer people have to actively participate in denigrating who we are as people to get access to a law school to study law? That seems profoundly problematic to me and unthinkable that in 2013 anyone would think that this is an acceptable way to run an institution of higher education.”
 
If TWU is accredited — which many suspect will happen — Chaisson says the decision can be challenged. “It is challengeable, and I anticipate that will happen.”