Trinity Western law students stand outside Canada's Supreme Court. Photo by Deb Gyapong

Trinity Western law school plans on hold

  • August 29, 2018

OTTAWA – Trinity Western University’s decision to drop its mandatory community covenant has left religious freedom advocates wondering how it will impact the future of their cause. 

TWU’s president Bob Kuhn said the private evangelical Christian university has made no plans to re-start its pursuit of a law school — a proposal that had been at the centre of a long-running legal battle with several law societies. 

In June, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld decisions by the Law Society of British Columbia and the Law Society of Upper Canada (Ontario) not to accredit the proposed law school because the school’s covenant — which among other things, required students to refrain from sexual activity outside of traditional marriage — was deemed discriminatory against non-heterosexual students. 

The outcome was seen as a blow to religious freedom by the many groups that intervened in the case, including the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Archdiocese of Vancouver, the Catholic Civil Rights League, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and the Canadian Council of Christian Charities.

The school dropped its covenant for students on Aug. 9, though Kuhn said the decision had been under discussion for some time, even before the court’s decision. The timing of the announcement had to do with wanting the policy in place for the start of the academic year in the fall, he said.

Kuhn said pursuing a law school is “not on the list for immediate priority.”

The high profile of the TWU case led to a “lot of misinformation” about the university, that it “discriminated” and “did not permit gays to attend,” which was not true, Kuhn said. “No one is refused entry based on their belief system, sexual orientation or other issues.”

The Supreme Court of Canada decision “provided some guidance, or at least a reference point for pursuing this,” he said.

The covenant remains in place for faculty and staff and “in our commitment to a biblically-based evangelical Christian perspective,” he said. 

Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver said he hopes TWU will go ahead with its proposed law school. He

The archbishop said dropping the covenant should make it easier for the proposed law school to get accreditation from the B.C. and Ontario law societies and for TWU to find support from the courts.

“They (the law societies) might find new grounds but I think it’s going to be harder because they argued heavily on the grounds of the covenant,” he said. “They didn’t want to try to argue that religious institutions had no right to a law school. To me, that doesn’t preclude the possibility they might come forward with other arguments.”

“Now that TWU has removed the mandatory nature of its community covenant — the sole objection of both the court and law societies — will regulators of the legal profession welcome a law school at the evangelical Christian university if TWU resurrects its proposal?” asked former Religious Freedom Ambassador Andrew Bennett, the director of Cardus Religious Freedom Institute.

“Or, will they find new grounds to object to the creation of Canada’s first Christian law school?”

Bennett reiterated his criticism of the Supreme Court’s “narrower, truncated view of the fundamental right to freedom of conscience and religion” in its TWU decision.

“This raises questions about how governments, other state and quasi-state actors in Canada will respect the rightful place of faith-based institutions in the public square,” he said.

Albertos Polizogopoulos, a constitutional lawyer who represented the EFC in the TWU cases, noted in an article for the division in the Christian legal community following the decision to drop the covenant.

“Some disapprove of the decision and ask why TWU didn’t simply make the community covenant voluntary years ago, instead of spending years and millions of dollars fighting a legal battle that it ultimately did not need to wage,” he said. “Others say that TWU fought the good fight, lost and now is simply responding to the Supreme Court’s decision in an attempt to preserve its institution and community.”

Kuhn said some of the criticism of TWU for dropping the covenant reflects an “oversimplification” of a complex legal case reflected in the Supreme Court’s TWU decision.

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Canada needs a Christian law school. Rather than wasting time, it is in the interests of all Christians that TWU re-apply and start the school at the earliest.

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