Christian Law School
Proposal Raises Discussion
Some lawyers object to Trinity Western University’s “community covenant.”
By Jeff Dewsbury
Trinity Western University’s proposal to add a law school to its Langley, B.C., campus has resulted in a public conversation about the university’s “commun- ity covenant” and its appropriateness for a law school that would train a modest number of the country’s future lawyers and judges. Those weighing in include the Canadian
Council of Law Deans, the Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver
and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
At issue is the section of the covenant (signed by all students,
staff and faculty) asking for voluntary abstinence from “sexual
intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man
and a woman.”
Trinity Western first proposed the law school in June 2012,
with applications to both the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Educa-
tion and to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, an um-
brella organization of all the provincial law societies which will
make a recommendation to the B.C. Ministry. Both groups are
reviewing various aspects of the proposal, from curriculum and
policies to faculty credentials and governance models.
In a move that attracted national media attention, the Canadian Council of Law Deans (CCLD) expressed concerns in an
open letter to the Federation of Law Societies on Nov. 20. The
Trinity Western community covenant definition of marriage as
between a man and a woman discriminates against gay and lesbian students, says the CCLD, and may violate both provincial
and federal law – and is incompatible with a law school.
“Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is unlawful
in Canada and fundamentally at odds with the core values of all
Canadian law schools,” the letter states.
In an interview with Faith Today Bill Flanagan, president of the
CCLD, said its 22 deans are not questioning Trinity Western’s Chris-
tian mission, but the focus on sexual orientation within the covenant,
which seems out of step with fundamental freedoms in this coun-
try. “It is possible to have a good faith-based law school steeped in
Christian tradition,” he said. “What we’re questioning is whether it’s
necessary to have that provision to preserve the faith-based nature
of the law school – we feel quite strongly that it’s not.”
The debate is very similar to one Trinity Western faced in the
late 1990s. Then, as the university sought to open its own post-
graduate teacher’s certification program, it was the B.C. College
of Teachers which took issue with the community covenant. That
turned into a costly battle that eventually wound up in the Su-
preme Court of Canada, resulting in a ruling that enabled Trinity
Western to certify teachers.
The law protects the right for faith-based institutions
to hold to the principles of that faith, says Janet Epp
Buckingham, who headed up TWu’s proposal.
The court ruled then that the guarantee of religious freedom
does allow a religious institution to require staff and students to
adhere to the beliefs and practices of its religion. The court also
concluded that religious belief alone is not a good enough reason
to disqualify a religious school or its graduates, noting “the free-
dom to hold beliefs is broader than the freedom to act on them.”
Unless there is “concrete evidence that training teachers at
TWU fosters discrimination in the public schools of B.C.,” the
court said, “the freedom of individuals to adhere to certain reli-
gious beliefs while at TWU should be respected.”
That earlier decision should inform discussions about the
law school proposal, says Don Hutchinson, vice-president and
general legal counsel at The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada,
an intervener in that earlier case.
“The notion that the establishment of a Christian law school
would somehow compromise some kind of Charter-dictated secular character is completely wrong,” he wrote recently in the
National Post (archived in a Jan. 23 post at www.theEFC.ca/activateCFPL).
“TWU has other well-regarded professional schools: a teacher’s college, a business school and a nursing school,” Hutchinson
adds. “If a new Christian law school is or is not going to succeed,
the deciding factors should be its ability to meet educational
requirements, and the interest of students in attending. The only
legitimate concern the law deans should have is that a law school