An evangelical Christian university in British Columbia that has been blocked from starting its own law school got its day in court late last week. What was supposed to be Canada’s first Christian law school has had a lot of delays in getting off the ground.
Nine judges on Canada’s Supreme Court, meeting in Ottawa, deliberated whether a law school can be accredited because its students must affirm traditional Christian doctrines on sex outside of traditional marriage (thereby excluding sexually active gay students) although, if you read Trinity Western University's covenant carefully, it does not mandate that students be Christian.
The case is known as Trinity Western University v. Law Society of Upper Canada and Trinity Western University v. The Law Society of British Columbia Society.
I wrote about this case a few weeks ago and I thought Canadian media would be full of stories on the hearing -- but that’s not been the case. Which is a shame, because, as the Toronto-based Catholic Register just wrote, this case could create "revolutionary change" in terms of the havoc that religious believers -- and not just Christian ones -- will experience.
There is a lot at stake here. The Lawyer’s Daily, published by LexisNexis Canada, had the most complete account, which is what I start with here:
Day one of the much-anticipated Trinity Western University (TWU) hearing at the Supreme Court featured tough judicial questions for both sides, but most questions were directed to counsel for the evangelical Christian university which contends British Columbia and Ontario legal regulators shouldn’t have denied it accreditation for its proposed law school.
In the overflowing courtroom jammed with 69 counsel, and dozens of spectators watching on a big screen outside, nine judges probed TWU’s counsel Kevin Boonstra of Kuhn LLP and Robert Staley of Bennett Jones…
For those of you wanting to read this, there is a paywall, but you can get two weeks of it free, which means that all you need do is create a log-on to scan the piece.
Themes explored by the judges, who will also hear from 27 interveners on Dec. 1, included: How broad or narrow is the law societies’ statutory mandate to protect the public interest -- and did the regulators go beyond their jurisdiction by denying accreditation based on TWU’s controversial admissions policy requiring all would-be students, including those who are LGBTQ2, to sign a religious-based code of conduct restricting sexual intimacy to opposite-sex married couples. ...
TWU’s Boonstra found himself on the hot seat more than anyone else, with Justice Richard Wagner interrupting him barely one minute into Boonstra’s opening remarks at the hearing that was slated for four hours, but stretched closer to five.
The article continues as almost a transcript of the proceedings, including texts of remarks from several of the judges, most of whom seemed clueless as to how a faith-based college operates.
But it offers the most complete account of the first day’s hearing. If you decide to plow through it, familiarize yourself with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as the article refers to this charter continuously.
The Vancouver Sun also covered the story.
Proposed back in 2012, Canada’s first private law school was expected to open in September 2015, but legal opposition across the nation to the Langley-based institution’s controversial Community Covenant put the plan in limbo.
In the first of day of arguments, the nine Supreme Court of Canada justices began weighing the impact of the 2,000-word recitation of Christian values that the school expects students, faculty and staff to embody.
Justice Richard Wagner almost immediately suggested the evangelical school was asking provincial law societies to help discriminate against students who did not agree with the creed. He said the document forced dissenting students to either not attend TWU or hide their real sexual orientation, something that would cause them pain and suffering.
“To what extent does a right based on religious freedom cause harm to other people in Canadian society?” Wagner asked. “In my book, that’s called discrimination.”
The next two paragraphs will cause American readers to engage in multiple face palms.
The school denied there was any harm, but the engaged justices appeared skeptical and peppered the lawyers with queries.
“Is there such a thing as a religious law school?” Justice Rosalie Abella pressed. “Can a law school have a religion, and is it the right of the law school to have a religion no matter what its tenets? Have we gone so far? Can a law school be Jewish, Muslim or Christian?”
Have these folks never heard of Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York? Yes, a law school can be Jewish. This particular law school mandates that any event on campus must use a kosher caterer. I’m willing to bet there isn’t a non-kosher piece of food anywhere on campus. So does that mean that non-kosher-eating students should sue the school because it discriminates against pork eaters?
I’m sure journalists covering this case, if not Canadian Supreme Court justices, have certainly heard of faith-based law schools and my one beef with all this coverage is that no reporter mentions the 52 law schools south of the border that are affiliated with faith traditions. That's a decent sample size right there.
Other Canadian coverage included iPolitics, an Ottawa-based site that had a very readable account of the first day's hearing; the Surrey Now-Leader and the Vancouver-based Georgia Straight, which has had ongoing coverage of the controversy. The Straight's latest piece had these two interesting factoids that larger media should have had as well:
TWU president Bob Kuhn stated in a news release that there hasn't been a student expelled for being LGBT.
TWU's Earl Phillips, executive director of the proposed law school, added that the school won't rely on taxpayer funding and will offer a concentration in charity law.
Coverage from the United States was minimal but here’s a link to a succinct Christianity Today story on the hearing. I wish more U.S. media were following this case, as it’s a real glimpse into Canada’s soul. It’s also a referendum on whether evangelical Protestants, which are quite influential in American political life, should be allowed basic rights north of the border.
TWU expects a ruling next spring, which should give reporters on both sides of the border plenty of time to bone up on these issues.