Reasonable Doubt: Lawyers vote on heterosexism in legal education

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      This month British Columbian lawyers are voting in a binding referendum on whether to accredit Trinity Western University’s law school. 

      The controversy arises because TWU requires students to sign a covenant that prohibits sex outside of heterosexual marriage, thereby discriminating against LGBTQ applicants.

      Some background (if you know the background, feel free to skip ahead three paragraphs): TWU submitted a proposal to establish a law school in 2012, which the Ministry of Advanced Education accepted. In order for TWU law graduates to practice law in B.C., TWU needs to be accredited by the Law Society of British Columbia. The Law Society “benchers” (made up of lawyers who act as the board of directors for the Law Society) voted in favor of accrediting TWU, many noting how distasteful they found their decision. 

      The benchers’ decision to accredit caused much legal ink to be spilled and a political hullabaloo. Reasonable Doubt weighed in on the issue here and here.

      Michael Mulligan, a lawyer practicing in Victoria, gathered enough signatures from lawyers to force a special general meeting on the issue. In June, B.C. lawyers overwhelmingly voted in favor of reversing the decision to accredit TWU (3,210 to 968). As a result, the Law Society decided to hold a binding referendum on the issue, which brings us to today. If one-third of lawyers vote in the referendum and two-thirds vote not to accredit TWU, then the Law Society will not accredit TWU. 

      The other law societies in Canada have grappled with whether to accredit TWU. Ontario and Nova Scotia voted not to accredit TWU. New Brunswick accredited TWU but their lawyers followed the example in B.C. and voted at a special general meeting to withdraw the accreditation. The Alberta, P.E.I., Nunavut, and Saskatchewan law societies voted to accredit TWU. Newfoundland put the question in abeyance to likely be revisited after the courts have reviewed the issue.

      Many people have celebrated the B.C. Law Society’s decision to hold a vote on whether to accredit TWU.

      Personally, while I am not displeased with the decision because I have faith that lawyers will do the right thing and duplicate the vote from the special general meeting, the vote raises important questions about whether equality rights should be up for a vote, particularly when they involve historically oppressed minorities. Modern democracies have a constitution that enshrines basic rights and limits the authority of decision makers in order to prevent minority rights from being trampled on. In my view, some things simply should not be up for a vote—LGBTQ equality protections are one of them.

      I spoke with Sharon Matthews, a bencher from the B.C. Law Society, about her perspective. She is one of the few benchers who has been outspoken against accrediting TWU because of its discriminatory covenant. Matthews explained that her opposition arises from the fact that the covenant is coercive by forcing LGBTQ students to deny an essential aspect of their being. Fellow students and faculty are also supposed to report known transgressions.

      To Matthews, the covenant does not raise a conflict between freedom of religion and equality rights because the covenant does not engage freedom of religion:

      I respect freedom of religion concerns. But I do not see anything about the covenant that engages freedom of religion. If TWU wanted to believe and express a statement of values about marriage—I would not agree with it, but that is different than a coercive covenant. The right that TWU is seeking to protect is a right to discriminate, not to express their religion.

      Matthews says that the Law Society asked TWU if they would consider amending the covenant but TWU firmly declined.

      One of the key reasons that many benchers reluctantly voted to accredit TWU is because of an earlier and similar case TWU v. BC College of Teachers, a 2001 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. The B.C. College of Teachers did not accredit TWU because of its discriminatory policies and the Supreme Court of Canada reversed the decision.

      Much has changed since the first TWU case. Canadian society has become more alive to LGBTQ issues and made progress in reversing ignorant, hateful views about the LGBTQ community. We have 13 years of Charter jurisprudence that has evolved the legal tests for religious and equality rights.

      Our constitution has long been interpreted as capable of adapting to the changing times. The “living tree doctrine”—which is deeply entrenched in Canadian constitutional law—holds that the constitution is organic and must be read in a broad and progressive manner so that it adapts to changing times. In of Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General)  (widely known as the Persons Case), the court used the living tree doctrine to find that women were in fact “persons” capable of sitting in the senate: 

      The "frozen concepts" reasoning runs contrary to one of the most fundamental principles of Canadian constitutional interpretation: that our Constitution is a living tree which, by way of progressive interpretation, accommodates and addresses the realities of modern life.

      In looking at the Supreme Court of Canada’s decisions concerning LGBTQ Charter rights, the evolution is apparent. In 1995, the court in Egan v. Canada found that the Old Age Security Act did not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation even though it excluded benefits for same-sex couples. In describing the objective of the Old Age Security Act, four of the Justices wrote that it was:

      … firmly anchored in the biological and social realities that heterosexual couples have the unique ability to procreate, that most children are the product of these relationships, and that they are generally cared for and nurtured by those who live in that relationship. In this sense, marriage is by nature heterosexual.

      If Egan were heard today, the Supreme Court of Canada’s reasoning would arguably be different. The outdated view that marriage is by nature heterosexual is quickly fading in Canada. In fact, the Supreme Court of Canada’s tone had changed even in 1999 when in M. v. H. the court ruled that Ontario’s Family Law Act discriminated against same sex couples by distinguishing between same sex spouses and heterosexual spouses when dealing with spousal support.

      Matthews believes that the court would likely now support a Law Society decision not to accredit TWU but she recognizes that the precise legal answer is not wholly clear—it rarely is in law. Matthews believes that this ambiguity offers the benchers an opportunity to have open minds and lead the profession where it clearly wants to go by not tolerating discrimination against a historically oppressed and vulnerable minority.

      The results of the referendum will be counted on October 31, 2014. Win or lose, the final determination will likely be delayed further as the case makes its way through the courts and up to the Supreme Court of Canada where we will find out just how far our constitution has evolved in terms of protecting LGBTQ equality rights.

      Joseph Fearon is a civil litigation lawyer at Stevens Virgin practising in the areas of personal injury and commercial litigation. Reasonable Doubt appears on on Fridays. You can send your questions for the column to its writers at Follow @JWCFearon on Twitter. A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Stevens Virgin or the lawyers of Stevens Virgin.




      Oct 17, 2014 at 2:06pm

      "In of Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General) (widely known as the Persons Case), the Supreme Court of Canada used the living tree doctrine to find that women were in fact “persons” capable of sitting in the senate."

      If by "the Supreme Court of Canada" you mean "the Privy Council of England," sure! The Supreme court of Canada decided unanimously that due to legislative intent and the status of women at common law, they were unable to be senators.

      As always needs to be mentioned, every law school imposes obligations onto its students above and beyond what is legislated by Provincial or Federal Governments. This is merely quibbling over price. Unprincipled quibbling. The same people attacking this covenant surely want a covenant on students prohibiting them from arguing the death penalty for homosexuals in class, even for epic lulz, etc.


      Oct 17, 2014 at 4:00pm

      Just an observation, but one of the things that's oft-overlooked about the TWU covenant is that it discriminates against more than just gays & lesbians. It also discriminates against hetero unmarried people, in the sense that they are prohibited from having sex, period. Really the only TWU students who are allowed to have sex are hetero married people. Hetero unmarried people, gay & lesbian married people and gay & lesbian singles are supposed to go celibate. This is why I bailed on religion at a very early age . . .

      Dr. Jack

      Oct 17, 2014 at 10:25pm

      Are they going next to prohibit people who graduated from universities in the Islamic countries, where there is Sharia law, to practice in BC??

      In such countries there is not a simple "discrimination" against homosexuals, there is the death penalty!!

      Just wondering!!


      Oct 17, 2014 at 10:26pm

      There are approximately 12,000 practicing lawyers in B.C so a vote of 3,210 for this refererundum is hardly an overwhelming vote. The real question here is why around 8,000 lawyers did not participate in the vote. Are they embarrassed by the bull headed refusal of members of the profession to respect the SCC decision in BCTF v. TWU, which was in favour of TWU.


      Oct 18, 2014 at 10:32am

      This provides an excellent insight into how caselaw develops. It does not develop naturally; it develops on the basis of what lawyers are willing to present.

      Too bad the BC Liberals only want to take on the BCTF monopoly---the Law Monopoly has far worse consequences. Breaking the Lawyers' Union, that is something I could sink my teeth in to.


      Oct 18, 2014 at 5:28pm

      That's fucked. People can fuck who they want to, when they want to, in the matter they want to. It's none of TWU's fucking business, nor is this is even a discussion in this day and age. Fuck. Actually, fuck off, TWU.

      Dr. Jack

      Oct 18, 2014 at 5:45pm

      Very intellectual Mr. OK!!

      Worthy a passionate discussion!

      Martin Dunphy

      Oct 18, 2014 at 5:56pm


      Lawyers' Union?
      Kind of puts the kibosh on anything else you say right there.


      Oct 20, 2014 at 7:33am

      I am very anti-religious, but I can't help but wonder if this would be such an issue if it were a Muslim school? I believe that they have a negative view of homosexuality. A quick search brought up these points illustrating why Islam cannot permit homosexuality.

      It clashes with the "natural" order in which God created human beings
      It brings destruction of the family and the institutions of marriage
      It leads people to ignore God's guidance in other areas of life

      Sound familiar?


      Oct 21, 2014 at 4:15am

      Wow. I see you Canadians have the same issues as we in the USA, except you appear to be farther down the LGBT road than us (as evidenced by the Canadian version of the acronym, which includes the Q). The concept of religious freedom ought to include the right of a random group of believers in Religion X to have their own place and own practices; as long as those practices don't cause true harm to people, then let them be. Law schools are a plenty, and no doubt almost all of them have no "sexual behavior" covenant whatsoever. Trinity is it's own private place, and it is a church-affiliated institution, and nobody makes anyone attend there. I would venture a guess that plenty of hetero students might protest such a covenant, also. The school is obviously a conservative Christian organization, and who are we to tell them how to run their own house? Trinity graduates must adhere to the general law when they practice in the courts. Yet within the halls of the school itself, can they not have their own standards? Those who are comfortable with the standards can apply to Trinity, and those who are uncomfortable can simply apply to a different school; and for every student attending Trinity, a seat is freed up at the other schools; seems simple enough.

      Are the detractors truly upset that Trinity has a covenant, or is the attack upon the school merely a display of hate upon people who look at "morals" in a different way (or perhaps anything that resembles the traditional church)? Will you not be happy until those despicable Bible-thumpers either (a) fully embrace the alternative lifestyle or (b) are driven into the sea, never to be seen again? In all seriousness, the folks at Trinity are not causing any harm to anyone. Is it not logical for those who have a problem with the teachings of a given church organization to simply not associate with said church? Those who are opposed to Trinity act as if Trinity is the only conduit through which a person can become a lawyer, which we all know is far from the truth. I think it reasonable that a church (or any other private organization) might require that you follow their rules while associating with said church. I find it sad that so many people appear to have as their mission the destruction of the church as we know it . . . why not display the “tolerance” that is so often demanded from others?