An embattled Christian law school in Canada was granted a major victory on Wednesday when the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ruled that a law society acted improperly when it denied accreditation to Trinity Western University based on the school's biblical stance on homosexuality.
The court ruled that the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, which regulates legal practices in the province, does not have the right to issue such a denial, concluding that the governing body violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada's bill of rights, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal firm based in the United States.
At the center of the Trinity Western University v. Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society case was the school's traditional view on homosexuality and its requirement that students sign a "community covenant" affirming that romantic relationships should be confined to one man and one woman.
“According to the Bible, sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman, and within that marriage bond it is God’s intention that it be enjoyed as a means for marital intimacy and procreation,” the school document reads. “Honouring and upholding these principles, members of the TWU community strive for purity of thought and relationship, respectful modesty, personal responsibility for actions taken, and avoidance of contexts where temptation to compromise would be particularly strong.”
School of Law at Trinity Western University
Nova Scotia was joined by British Columbia and Ontario in rejecting the university's proposed law school — the first Christian institution of its kind in Canada when it opens in 2016 — based on this text, essentially refusing to recognize its graduates as attorneys. Trinity Western later sued the Novia Scotia law body over the refusal, leading to this week's verdict.
Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Jamie S. Campbell wrote in a 139-page decision that this is the first time a case has assessed whether the bar association had the authority to issue such a denial, explaining that the case and its decision involve "religious freedom and liberty of conscience."
"It is also about whether, even if it had that authority, the NSBS reasonably considered the implications of its actions on the religious freedoms of TWU and its students in a way that was consistent with Canadian legal values of inclusiveness, pluralism and the respect for the rule of law," Campbell wrote. "I have concluded that the NSBS did not have the authority to do what it did. I have also concluded that even if it did have that authority it did not exercise it in a way that reasonably considered the concerns for religious freedom and liberty of conscience."
The justice went on to reject the law society's claim that Trinity Western's treatment of homosexuality is "unlawful," lecturing that the school has every right, as a private institution, to hold its stance.
"It may be offensive to many but it is not unlawful. TWU is not the government," he said, according to the Vancouver Sun. "Like churches and other private institutions it does not have to comply with the equality provisions of the Charter ... what the NSBS has done does not rationally relate to the important objective of dealing with discrimination."
And he wasn't done there. Campbell also pushed back against the law society's claim that Trinity Western's proposed institution would be a "rogue" school.
"It would be so only in the sense that its policies are not consistent with the preferred moral values of the NSBS Council and doubtless many if not a majority of Canadians," he said. "The Charter is not a blueprint for moral conformity. Its purpose is to protect the citizen from the power of the state, not to enforce compliance by citizens or private institutions with the moral judgments of the state."
School spokesperson Guy Saffold said that officials at Trinity Western are elated over the decision — one that he called "yet another milestone in the process of developing our school of law."
"We believe this is an exceptionally important decision from Justice Campbell," Saffold said in a statement. "It affirms that protection of religious freedom is and must continue to be central value in Canada’s pluralist society."
The Alliance Defending Freedom also touted the verdict, with Gerald Chipeur, Q.C., of the Canadian firm Miller Thompson, LLP and an affiliate of the conservative legal firm, noting his belief that the Supreme Court's verdict is a win for freedom.
"Canadians should be free to live and work according to their deeply held convictions. The same applies to faith-based educational institutions, which should be free to operate according to the faith they teach and espouse," he said. "The court was right to affirm the right of this law school and its students to adhere to their sincerely held religious beliefs, which the Charter fully protects."
Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society president Tilly Pillay said that her group is currently reviewing the decision and will explore the best path forward.
"We appreciate that Justice Campbell dealt with this matter very quickly and comprehensively," Pillay said. "We are analyzing the decision and will review it with our legal counsel before we can determine what the next steps might be. There is much to consider."
It is unclear how the Nova Scotia verdict will impact the decisions of law societies in British Columbia and Ontario that have also denied recognition to Trinity Western based on the schools Christian views on homosexuality — or whether Nova Scotia will appeal.
TheBlaze first reported about issues facing Trinity Western’s law school in September, noting that the school has faced an uphill battle. That said, the university has been approved for accreditation by bar associations in Alberta, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nunavut.
On one side there are those who argue that religious freedom is paramount and that the university and its students should be free to uphold religious convictions in the covenant.
On the other, though, are critics who claim that the agreement students are required to sign would preclude gays and lesbians from studying at the school and would, thus, violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the nation’s bill of rights.
Trinity Western was founded in 1962, with its associated law school slated to open in 2016.