Canadian Appeals Court Upholds Christian Law School’s Marriage Stance

A fight is certain in Canada's supreme court.

By Mark Kellner Published on November 1, 2016

In a unanimous decision Nov. 1, the British Columbia Court of Appeals said an evangelical Christian university has the right to enforce a “community conduct” standard that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.

The 5-0 decision says that the Law Society of British Columbia, which is the equivalent of an U.S. bar association, exceeded its authority in refusing to accredit the law school at Trinity Western University in Langley, a suburb of Vancouver. However, a separate decision by the Ontario Court of Appeals that ruled against Trinity Western is likely to end up in the country’s Supreme Court before long.

Weighing both Canada’s acceptance of same-sex marriage and its constitutional mandates for religious freedom, the Court of Appeals said the attorney’s association didn’t respect Trinity’s Christian worldview when the group voted to shun its law students.

“A society that does not admit of and accommodate differences cannot be a free and democratic society — one in which its citizens are free to think, to disagree, to debate and to challenge the accepted view without fear of reprisal,” the opinion stated. “This case demonstrates that a well-intentioned majority acting in the name of tolerance and liberalism, can, if unchecked, impose its views on the minority in a manner that is in itself intolerant and illiberal.”

Trinity Western’s troubles with Canadian bar groups began shortly after it announced plans for a law school in 2012. As is the general rule in the United States, graduates of law schools in Canada can only be admitted to the bar if their program has been accredited by the bar association, or law society, in the province where they seek licensing.

“Everyone, religious or not, should celebrate this decision as a protection of our Canadian identity,” Amy Robertson, a university spokeswoman, said in a statement following the ruling. “The freedom to believe as we choose and practice accordingly is one of the most profound privileges we have as Canadians. We are a diverse, pluralistic society, committed to respecting one another even when we disagree. This is something people in many other countries don’t enjoy.”

The 54-year-old Trinity Western University began, and remains, an evangelical Christian school. While students of all backgrounds are welcome, the school has a “Community Covenant” in which students pledge to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”

Attorneys who disagree with the school’s policy asserted Trinity Western’s law pressed the Law Society of British Columbia to withdraw its approval of the program. The group’s directors, called “Benchers” in Canadian legal parlance, did so, but the appeals court said the panel exceeded its authority.

The British Columbia ruling is the polar opposite of a June 29, 2016 finding by the Ontario Court of Appeal. There, the appeals justices found the Law Society of Upper Canada — a separate organization —  had violated the religious freedom of Trinity Western’s law school and its graduates, but allowed that group to deny acceptance of the program. Trinity Western is challenging that ruling in Canada’s Supreme Court.

The rising societal acceptance of same-sex marriage raises concerns that American law schools might be subjected to the same kinds of pressure. However, guidelines published by the American Bar Association have carved out an extension for faith-based law schools, saying its standards do “not prevent a law school from having a religious affiliation or purpose and adopting and applying policies of admission of students and employment of faculty and staff that directly relate to this affiliation or purpose.”

The issues raised in the Trinity Western case may impact more than just a law school affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church-affiliated institution, said Barry W. Bussey, legal affairs director for the the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, of which the school is a member.

“If Trinity loses on this, then a lot of other religious organizations that are involved in the so-called ‘public square’ will feel this increased pressure to conform to sexual norms that are outside of their experience and teachings,” Bussey told The Stream. “It has to do with the autonomy of a religious organization to run their own ship, without being imposed upon by secular values.”

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