A case watched closely by religious freedom activists has resulted in a loss for Canada’s Trinity Western University. A Supreme Court of Canada ruling found the law societies of British Columbia and Ontario have the power to refuse to recognise Trinity Western University’s law school because the private university holds students to a “community covenant.”
That covenant holds students to traditional Christian standards of chastity, including sex only within traditional man-woman marriages.
The court found “the public interest of the law profession gives it the right to promote equality by ensuring equal access, support diversity within the bar and prevent harm to LGBT students,” Canada’s CBC reports.
“In our respectful view, the [law societies’] decision not to accredit Trinity Western University’s proposed law school represents a proportionate balance between the limitation on the Charter right at issue and the statutory objectives the [law societies] sought to pursue,” the majority judgment reported of the judges’ ruling that passed 7-2. Canada has a “Charter of Rights and Freedoms” as part of its constitution similar to the US Bill of Rights.
This new 7-2 ruling by the Supreme Court follows previous Provincial (state) Court rulings that had been divided, sometimes backing the University and sometimes opposing it.
The majority judges agree that the decision will impose a restriction on the religious freedom of the University.
“Evangelical members of TWU’s community have a sincere belief that studying in a community defined by religious beliefs contributes to their spiritual development. This belief is supported through the universal adoption of the Covenant, which helps to create an environment in which TWU students can grow spiritually.”
But that this has to be balanced against the Law Societies’ duty to uphold public interest in “equal access to the legal profession, diversity within the bar, and preventing harm to LGBTQ law students.”
The judges also argue that the Law Societies’ decision to refuse recognition “only interferes with TWU’s ability to operate a law school governed by the mandatory Covenant. This limitation is of minor significance because a mandatory covenant is not absolutely required to study law in a Christian environment in which people follow certain religious rules of conduct, and studying law in an environment infused with the community’s religious beliefs is preferred, not necessary, for prospective TWU law students.”
In an early response, a Trinity Western spokesperson, Professor Janet Epp Buckingham said “In the near future we won’t have a law school. But we’ll have to continue our options as we go forward.” Conservative Christians may differ with the judges on whether disallowing the student “Community Covenant” is of minor significance. Can a college maintain a strong Christian ethos without an absolute rule of conduct for students, perhaps, by the example of the majority of students or the staff?