A group of prominent Canadian lawyers is calling on the queer community to mobilize and fight a British Columbia Christian university’s application for a new law school because it openly discriminates against gay students.
Trinity Western University (TWU), an evangelical Christian school in Langley, BC, forces students to sign a contract agreeing that “sexual intimacy” among gay and lesbian people is forbidden. All students, staff and faculty at the school must adhere to the pledge.
“This is a university to educate new lawyers and it will teach that homosexuality is an anathema and hateful to god,” says civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby, who is sounding the alarm for action. “I think we all assumed this kind of discrimination was yesterday’s battle, and [TWU’s application] would never be approved, but it’s happening.”
Ruby is part of a new group, which includes Constance Backhouse, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and Beth Symes — both members of the Order of Canada — and Angela Chaisson, a young queer lawyer who worked with Ruby on a conflict of interest case that nearly removed Toronto Mayor Rob Ford from office last year. Also joining the group is Bob Gallagher, co-founder of Canadians for Equal Marriage in 2002.
“We really want to get the gay community behind this,” says Ruby. “We need some attention on this issue because it looks to be going ahead.”
He is disappointed with the response he received after meeting last week with the treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada. “We asked, ‘what are we going to do to stop this?’” he says. “And the answer we got back was extremely non-committal. We got a letter that said the process is being followed. That’s it. So we get the sense that this is going through.”
Trinity Western did not respond to Xtra’s requests for comment. The final decision is expected before the end of August.
Ruby says there are currently two applications on the table. One is with the BC government. “That looks like it’s going ahead,” he says.
“If they get a law school designation from the BC government, then they have to have acceptance from other law societies from across the country, so their degree will be recognized and be equivalent to any existing law school degree.”
TWU is also waiting for a decision from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, which is a federal body consisting of law societies across the country. But Ruby says the federation is only looking at the question of whether the curriculum is adequate.
“In this case, the curriculum is not the issue,” he says. “Here we must ask, ‘Is it appropriate to have a law school that discriminates against people who are queer?’”
The Federation of Law Societies of Canada has created a special committee to look at the question: “Is there a danger that students from TWU will discriminate against queer people in their practice of law?”
Ruby’s group, which recently reached out to the federation, believe the special committee is asking the wrong question. “You can never prove that graduates from a particular institution, regardless of what you know about it, will discriminate,” he says. “It’s impossible to prove that. It’s a hypothetical question. And the answer is obviously that some will and some won’t.”
Instead, he argues, the question should be, “is it permissible to set up a quota system for gay and lesbian students?”
There are approximately 3,500 law school spots across Canada, he says. “There is lots of competition for places and many people can’t get in. This is a quota system similar to what existed for Jews in the 1940s.”
It’s not known how many law school spots will be available at TWU. What is clear is that those spaces will not be open to LGBT students, he says.
“So, if you want to be a lawyer it will be much better if you’re not gay or if you conceal it, because your access will be more limited,” he says. “A quota system is just not acceptable. It’s unconstitutional, it’s pure bigotry and it’s wrong.”
TWU is Canada’s largest privately funded Christian university. Ruby says a private law school is the last thing Canada needs. “A public law school could never make its students sign a covenant to accept [evangelical] principals, in order to get a legal education. So if you’re gay, you have to lie. It’s a private school, so they can do it.”
Since TWU’s application was first submitted, Canadian lawyers have questioned how a university that discriminates against LGBT people can possibly teach constitutional law and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Ruby says the TWU faculty of law will point to the passage in the preamble of the Charter, which states “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.”
“Trinity Western will say that the courts have failed in their mandate to give meaning to that phrase, then examine cases from that perspective,” he says. “That’s the fundamentalist Christian approach to the constitution.
“There’s a real danger that people graduating from such a curriculum will not understand the fundamental nature of equality.”
His group is the latest to speak out against TWU’s bid. The deans of some of Canada’s most presitigious law schools have already objected to it. More than 1,000 law students and alumni from eight law schools across Canada also voiced concern. TWU has also faced sharp criticism for its education program.
In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld TWU’s right to teach Christian values — even if they are homophobic. The high court found the university’s teacher program graduates are entitled to hold “sexist, racist or homophobic beliefs” as long as they don’t act on them in the public-school classrooms to which they might be assigned.
A Trinity Western spokesperson told Xtra in March that future law students would be properly trained to deal with queer clients.
“The proposed School of Law at TWU will first and foremost be a law school where students thoroughly research, study and engage with, all areas of law,” the spokesperson said in an email to Xtra. “A key learning objective of the proposed School of Law is that students will be prepared to serve clients in all areas of law.”
Ruby and the team of lawyers are asking people to contact the special committee of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada. Join the group’s Facebook page here.