As excited students enter university programs across Canada this month, no one is entering Trinity Western University’s law school. Why? Because the law school does not exist.
TWU lost its multiyear struggle when Canada’s Supreme Court issued a crushing verdict in June, enabling law societies to deny accrediting the proposed school due to TWU’s community covenant. The compulsory covenant includes abstaining from sex outside heterosexual marriage which the law societies deemed discriminatory against LGBTQ individuals.
TWU’s situation contains many layers. Supporters of the decision claim it protects LGBT rights, ensuring one cannot exclude a married gay person any more than someone of a particular race. Opponents, however, argue that LGBT persons can and do attend TWU and that the covenant addresses behavior and not identity. And, so, is denying a gay married person while accepting a heterosexual married person discriminatory? Or is the state overreaching by extending its values into a private religious institution?
The judges were split. The majority believed a Christian school could exist without this mandatory covenant, thus protecting equality and religious freedom rights. Dissenting judges felt the majority opinion stifled pluralism by denying dissenting views any room to exist. They criticized the majority’s reliance on “Charter values” since the Charter does not list values, but rights. Charter values, the dissenters averred, were “idiosyncrasies of the judicial mind” that risked overriding actual Charter rights such as religious freedom.
What now? One question is whether this might affect other Christian faculties. The court noted that law societies are unique – as upholders of the law, perhaps they are especially permitted to deny accreditation where they see discrimination. But might other professional bodies now follow suit, also rejecting graduates from programs that they believe violate equality rights?
As for TWU, the school has decided to scrap the covenant for students, though retaining it for faculty and staff. President Bob Kuhn says the court case was but one factor as the school wants to ensure LGBT students feel welcome. He said there are no immediate plans to revive the proposed law school.
And of course, at the bottom of all of this are actual people. Janet Epp Buckingham, a TWU professor and lawyer, lamented that the law school she has dreamed of for 25 years may be no more. Conversely, Matthew Wigmore, a TWU grad who co-founded One TWU, an LGBT group at the school, said dropping the covenant would significantly improve the lives of LGBT students at TWU. Equality rights and religious freedom rights invoke people’s identities and most deeply held commitments, ensuring this most recent clash will not be the last.
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