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Trinity Western argues for religious minority rights in Ontario court

Christian school suing Ontario law society for refusing to accredit its grads

From June 1–4, 2015, lawyers will hash out whether the Law Society of Upper Canada was right to deny accreditation to Trinity Western University’s proposed law school (above). Credit: twu.ca

How do you balance the rights of the LGBT community against those of a religious minority?

That’s what three Divisional Court justices in Ontario will determine this week as lawyers for Trinity Western University (TWU) argue that its proposed law school should be accredited in Ontario.

On day one of the four-day hearing in downtown Toronto, Robert W Staley, one of the lawyers for TWU, argued that Ontario’s law society directors did not fairly balance LGBT rights and religious minority rights when they voted 28-21 to reject the school’s bid for accreditation in Ontario on April 24, 2014.

Trinity Western University, which sits in Langley, a Vancouver suburb, is a private Christian university. Upon admittance, students are required to sign a community covenant, including a provision stating that students will not engage in any intimate relationships outside of marriage between a man and a woman.

The proposed law school, which was initially approved by British Columbia’s Ministry of Advanced Education before the government revoked its consent in December 2014 following the BC law society’s decision to rescind its approval, has been the source of major controversy. Both Ontario’s law society (called the Law Society of Upper Canada) and the Nova Scotia Barristers Society also voted against accrediting the law school; both were sued by TWU. However, a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge ruled in January that the law society didn’t have the authority to bar TWU graduates from articling.

TWU’s community covenant has raised concerns among those who fear that it in essence denies admission to any LGBT law school applicants. Law school, which has always been difficult to gain acceptance to, has become an even hotter ticket in the last ten years as application rates rise. Though TWU’s proposed class size is small — about 60 people, according to submissions in the hearing — those are still law school spots that are greatly desired by applicants of all stripes.

Staley rebuffed these arguments in court, saying that the reality is that people with similar views would attend TWU, while others would go to other law schools.

Lawyers for TWU instead say that it is the potential TWU graduates’ Charter rights as a religious minority that are being infringed — while LGBT people can still apply to many other law schools across Canada, Ontario’s law society is the only certification body for lawyers who wish to practice in Ontario.

TWU lawyers also say Ontario’s legal regulatory body went outside of its jurisdiction when its directors voted against TWU’s accreditation. In their factum, lawyers for TWU noted that the law society has its own disciplinary mechanisms for lawyers whose conduct is deemed unprofessional. They say there is no evidence that TWU graduates behave in a discriminatory manner.

The hearings continue until June 4 at 361 University Ave, including the Ontario law society’s counter arguments and those of several intervenors.