Approvals for new law school despite ongoing objections

Trinity Western University may have been given the green light for its law school by the B.C. government and preliminary approval from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, but many in the legal community are calling on provincial law societies to be more vocal against the school whose policies will discriminate against LGBTQ students and staff.

Canada’s first faith-based law school was approved Wednesday, despite objections from prominent voices in the legal community. The news came two days after the private university in Langley, B.C. won preliminary approval from the FLSC.

The school requires all students and faculty sign a pledge to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”

TWU received approval Wednesday from the British Columbia Minister of Advanced education, Amrik Virk. The school plans to admit 60 first-year law students to a three-year JD program starting in the fall of 2015.

In a column written for the Globe and Mail this week, Elaine Craig, assistant professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, said the decision by the FLSC represents “a refusal to act in the interests of equality and justice. As lawyers, we lack the courage of the B.C. College of Teachers more than 10 years ago.”

In the early 1990s, the British Columbia College of Teachers fought a similar policy of discrimination against gays and lesbians put forward by TWU when it tried to launch a teaching program. While the Supreme Court of Canada permitted freedom of religion to trump equality for gays and lesbians in the B.C. College of Teachers case, it did agree with the college that the covenant created “unfavourable differential treatment” towards gays and lesbians.

The decision to accept the TWU law school ultimately rests with each provincial law society. A law school with restrictions on students and faculty as proposed by TWU would violate student human rights code protections in Ontario, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

The group Let’s OUT-law TWU issued a statement Wednesday on its Facebook page saying the provincial law societies will be their focus as the school’s program review continues.

“Our understanding is that the Ministry has authority to approve all post-secondary programs, but it remains the exclusive domain of the law societies in each province to determine whether a program of study can be used to gain admission to the bar in their jurisdiction. While it is unfortunate that Minister Virk has chosen to outsource the review of TWU’s program to the FLSC magisterium, our efforts will focus on ensuring that these concerns are heard by the elected law society benchers in each jurisdiction. Like the BC ministry, the provincial law societies have grown too comfortable hiding in the skirtfolds of the FLSC on this issue, and not nearly comfortable enough making decisions in the interests of their profession’s youth. In 2013, undermining the rights of LGBTQ students is simply unacceptable.”

In a statement released by the Canadian Bar Association this week, president Fred Headon said: “. . . the association would have appreciated a more open, consultative process so that the evidence and many points of view on the issue might have been more fully aired. Unfortunately, the closed process will lead to the practical result of a group of people being excluded from attending or teaching at the proposed law school on the basis of their sexual orientation.”

Headon noted the CBA’s sexual orientation and gender identity conference and equality committee articulated their views in a letter sent to the FLSC last March in conjunction with a letter sent by the CBA stressing that approving a new law school should go beyond whether it complies with national standards:

“In our view, the federation and the committee charged with approving new Canadian law degree programs must strike a balance between freedom of religion and equality, and give full consideration to its public interest mandate and to the values embodied in Canadian human rights laws.

“Based on the delegations of power from its constituent law societies, the federation has a duty to go beyond a strict determination of a proposed law school’s compliance with the national standards. It must assess whether the institution and its program complies with Canadian law, including the protections afforded by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the human rights legislation in B.C., and in every province and territory where a proposed law degree may be recognized by the law societies for admission to bar.”

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