University law school raises questions about religious freedom

  • February 13, 2013

When it become known in January that Trinity Western University (TWU) was seeking accreditation for its law school, newspaper columns and letters pages almost immediately erupted with opinions about why the school should, or should not, be trusted to train lawyers.

A similar uproar occurred more than a decade ago involving TWU’s teachers college. In both cases, the controversy centred on a requirement that all students and staff agree in writing to refrain from a number of non-biblical behaviours, including sexual intimacy outside of traditional marriage.

The university, a Christian institution in Langley, B.C., that consistently ranks high in surveys of academic quality, requires all students and faculty to accept a community covenant that mandates, among other things, rejection of all non-marital sexual intimacy and recognition of the Bible as “the divinely inspired, authoritative guide for personal and community life.” The pledge also requires the school community to abstain from several other non- Christian activities, including gossip, slander, lying, cheating, stealing, pornography and drunkenness.

The Council of Canadian Law Deans (CCLD) has been TWU’s most vocal critic. It contends that the accrediting body, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, should investigate whether the university’s covenant respects federal and provincial law, and also consider the school’s “intentionally discriminatory impact on gay, lesbian and bisexual students.”

The covenant, according to CCLD president Bill Flanagan, as quoted in many newspapers, “clearly contemplates discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” He made this claim even though there is no mention of homosexuality, or sexual orientation in general, in the covenant, nor any suggestion that any identifiable group of students cannot attend the school.
A professor at the University of British Columbia went further. He claimed that, given the school’s religious grounding, it should not only be denied an accredited law school but should even be prevented from identifying itself as a university.

“A school that demands faculty believe a certain dogmatic way is incompatible with free inquiry. Not a law school, not a university,” wrote Don Dutton of the Department of Psychology.

This comment is particularly curious on two counts. First, if universities were to lose their status due to an affiliation with colleges tied to religious organizations, no more than 15 or 20 per cent of Canada’s current universities would retain their standing. Second, I have never met a faculty member at any university who hadn’t noticed politically correct “party lines” to support. Most law schools seem well subscribed to liberal and progressive viewpoints. Conservatives and religious people may not be ostracized, but they must sometimes feel lonely.

It’s legitimate to question whether a university’s academic program and overall standards meet all necessary criteria for an accredited law school. But to advocate for denial of accreditation solely on the basis being cited by TWU’s detractors betrays an intolerance toward religious beliefs that should have no place in a society that upholds freedom of religion and freedom of speech prominence in the Charter and in case law.

Attempts to discredit the school for its faith-based requirements diminish religious freedom and suggest secular conformity is the sole option for Canada’s law schools. A society of genuine diversity in spirit and culture would welcome the establishment of a law school animated by Christian principles.

Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver is among those supporting the school’s bid. He said in a statement that efforts to block TWU from opening a law school on the basis of its religious principles are an example of “threats to freedom of conscience and religion that are becoming increasingly common in this country. I pray for the success of Trinity Western University’s initiative to establish a law school, for the good of society, for believers and non-believers alike.”

The B.C. branch of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is also supporting TWU because it recognizes the assault on freedom of religion for what it is. It accused the deans of the country’s secular law schools of operating on the premise “that those who are religiously minded should be excluded from all legal education. That would, by extension, include all professors, students and eventually lawyers and judges who held to the religious views the CCLD says are repugnant,” wrote BCCLA president Lindsay Lyster.

The Federation of Law Societies wi ll ultimately determine whether TWU’s law school is accredited. It should judge TWU solely on its overall institutional competence and its academic suitability, not on the university’s religious principles.

(McGarry is the executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights Leaugue.)


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