Students oppose Christian university's law school proposal over homophobia
A debate about religious freedom versus queer rights continued on as over one thousand law students and alumni from eight Canadian law schools expressed opposition to a Langley Christian university's proposed law school.
Trinity Western University submitted a proposal for accreditation to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada in June 2012.
From March 12 to 18, coalitions of students and alumni from the University of Victoria, University of British Columbia, University of Alberta, University of Saskatchewan, York University, University of Ottawa, Université du Québec à Montréal, and Dalhousie University submitted letters to the Federation of Canadian Law Societies. The letters raised concerns about TWU's Community Covenant which requires students to abstain from "sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman". Premarital sex and homosexuality would be grounds for students to be disciplined, refused admission, or expelled.
Approximately 230 UBC law students and alumni supported criticism of the legality of TWU's Community Covenant by Dean Bill Flanagan and the Canadian Council of Law Deans. They also expressed concerns about how enforcement of the covenant would affect law school experiences. The reduction of diverse opinions, the UBC coalition letter points out, would reduce critical and analytical skills. Another area of concern was the discriminatory manner in which access to legal education would be provided.
University of Victoria law students pointed out in their letter that the covenant discriminates against queer students by permitting married heterosexual couples to engage in sexual intimacy but not homosexual couples in legally recognized marriages (same-sex marriage has been legal in Canada since 2005).
The BC Civil Liberties Association, however, has taken a different position.
The BCCLA stated that they acknowledge that the Community Covenant "clearly discriminates against lesbian, gay and bisexual students" and that they do not endorse this practice. However, in contrast to the CCLD, they argue that Trinity Western's proposal should be considered on its merits, not on grounds that would violate the freedom of religion and the freedom of association of the school's community.
The BCCLA also differentiates between the freedom to hold beliefs and the freedom to act upon them.
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, former UBC OUTLaws cochair Dustin Klaudt expressed concerns about religious freedom outweighing protection from discrimination.
"There certainly has to be a balance. Freedom of religion has its place. But in the context of the Community Convenant, there is no real balance. There's no real accommodation in the sense that the covenant seeks to bar people from expressing their sexual orientation altogether. It's kind of an attack on their identity. It's an assertion, and it's kind of like an absolute form of the assertion of freedom of religion, without taking into account the equality rights. So I would contend that it's not balancing at all."
The BCCLA points out that the core issue is the recognition and protection of the constitutional rights of private educational institutions, as opposed to public law schools, formed by religious or conscience-based groups. But Klaudt argued that unique aspects of this case need to be recognized.
"The legal profession is publicly regulated by the Law Society and graduates of Trinity Western will be seeking that public approval so the body that does approve has to take in public considerations….Part of the problem is yes, the Charter doesn't apply to a private university in the context nor does human rights legislation because of section 41 exemption. But the question is this is a specific context that's different than what has been considered and does that make it more public or private?"
The Canadian Bar Association, in a letter dated March 18, stated that the recognition of law degrees by law societies must be taken into consideration.
"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."
Klaudt also added that the approximately 230 straight and queer students and alumni who signed the UBC letter included students of various religions, including Christians.
"A lot of the Christians who I've talked to have expressed frustration that this is a fairly radical view of Christianity and it's kind of trying to paint them all with one brush as being homophobic. And it's unfortunate that in society today we still have this dichotomy that you can be LGBT or you can be Christian but you can't be both….Ultimately, someone who wishes to be an open member of the LGBT member could not there and that opinion is very likely to be foreclosed altogether from the discussion."