The Delicate Balance Between Equality and Religious Rights at TWU

Trinity Western University and the law societies of B.C. and Ontario will have their case heard in court later this fall

Trinity Western University has been involved in a number of legal disputes that stem from their implementation of a covenant agreement that is mandatory for students to sign. (Braden Klassen)

A contentious battle over equality and religious rights in post-secondary institutions is headed to the Supreme Court of Canada on Nov. 30.

Trinity Western University, a private Christian school in Langley, B.C., requires its students to sign a “community covenant,’ whereby they agree to abstain from all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. Because of this, the Law Society of B.C. and the Ontario-based Law Society of Upper Canada refused to accredit graduates of TWU’s proposed law school due to the belief that the covenant discriminates against unmarried and homosexual couples.

When the TWU “law school case” reached the B.C. Court of Appeal last year, that body ruled in favour of the university, stating that they had the legal right to freedom of religion under Canada’s Constitution. The Ontario Court of Appeal, however, ruled in favour of the Law Society of Upper Canada, stating that “prohibition on sexual activity between same-sex married couples [is] degrading and reminiscent of similar rules singling out blacks and interracial couples in the United States,” according to a report by The Globe and Mail.

The two cases, which have now been merged, are going to be heard in Canada’s Supreme Court on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. There, the decision as to whether the Law Societies in B.C. and Ontario can legally refuse to accredit TWU’s law graduates will be made.

“I am confident that we will succeed at the Supreme Court of Canada,” says Earl Phillips, the Executive Director of TWU Law.

TWU’s statutory mandate is to provide a “university education with an underlying philosophy and viewpoint that is Christian,” explains Phillips.

He says that the court case poses these questions: “What kind of society are we going to have in Canada? Are we going to have one that recognizes that there is a real diversity of people and ideas and philosophies and religions in this country?” He also maintains that TWU does not view the policy as discriminatory, and does “not require people to deny their sexual orientation.”

Ultimately, he asserts, it is a voluntary decision for students to attend TWU and sign the Community Covenant. If students, LGBTQ or not, are uncomfortable with the requirements of the covenant, they can simply choose to attend another university.

“TWU would probably not be the place they want to be,” he says.

Chuck Reasons, a professor of Law and Justice at Central Washington University who formerly taught Canadian Law at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says that the Supreme Court must benefit “the social good” by deciding whose rights take precedence in the case.

“It is really the balancing of equality rights and religious rights,” says Reasons. “I believe, given cases in other areas, that the equality rights will win out. In other words, the Canadian Supreme Court will follow the Ontario ruling, rather than the B.C. Court of Appeal ruling.”

He adds that it’s common for provincial court systems to disagree on hot button issues such as this, which he attributes partially to a judge’s personal opinions, background, and ideology influencing legal decisions that are made. However, he believes that it’s important for members of Canadian society to combat sexism and homophobia in order to maintain Canada’s inclusivity and diversity.

“By having that policy [of the Community Covenant], they’re saying that you’re not welcome. And to me, that’s a real step backward in law in Canada and in inclusivity in what the Canadian mosaic really should be about,” he says.

When contacted for an interview, the Law Society of B.C. declined to comment until the final court decision is released in spring 2018.

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