Ontario court deals blow to Christian law school
Trinity Western University is headed back to Canada’s Supreme Court
The Ontario Court of Appeal on Wednesday ruled that a provincial accrediting body can legally refuse to recognize Trinity Western University’s proposed law school based solely on the school’s marriage views.
“This isn’t just a loss for TWU,” said university spokesperson Amy Robertson. “This is a loss for all Canadians. Freedom of conscience and religion is the first of the fundamental freedoms mentioned in the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms].”
The Christian university plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.
In April 2014 the Law Society of Upper Canada announced it would not accept graduates of TWU’s proposed program, because it deemed discriminatory the school’s community covenant that requires students to abstain from sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman. After TWU appealed the decision, last year a three-judge panel ruled against the school, even though the judges agreed a religious freedom violation had occurred.
On Wednesday, the Ontario Court of Appeal also found the law society’s decision violates TWU’s religious freedom, but it too said the law society is within its rights to do so.
“We are most disappointed that the court found the infringement to be justifiable,” said Earl Phillips, executive director of TWU’s proposed law school.
TWU also has appeals pending in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, where law societies said they would not recognize graduates of the proposed law school. Several other provincial law societies have agreed to abide by the Federal Law Society of Canada’s 2013 decision to approve the school.
Based in British Columbia, TWU is a private liberal arts university attempting to start Canada’s first Christian law school. Its roughly 4,000 students make it the largest Christian university in the country—leading some to call it the Wheaton College of Canada.
TWU has six professional schools, and this is not the first time it has had to go to the Supreme Court of Canada to open one. In 2001 the country’s high court—in an 8-to-1 decision—ruled the British Columbia College of Teachers could not withhold accreditation for TWU’s teacher’s education program.
“Our teachers, nurses, and business graduates in particular are sought after for their compassion, integrity, training, and skill,” Phillips said. “After we make our case in Canada’s Supreme Court, I look forward to seeing the difference that graduates of TWU’s School of Law will make.”
Many religious freedom advocates see TWU’s case as a bellwether for religious freedom in North America. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, an intervener in support of TWU, said it was “deeply disappointed” in the decision that it said didn’t recognize the “significant contributions” faith-based institutions make to the public good.
Gerald Chipeur, an Alberta-based attorney who represents the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Canada, another intervener in the case, said based on oral arguments Wednesday’s decision did not surprise him. Chipeur is much more optimistic the Supreme Court of Canada will rule in TWU’s favor.
Former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper—whose attorney general intervened on behalf of TWU at the trial court level—appointed seven of the nine justices who sit on the high court. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who presided over the 2001 TWU case, is one of the two justices Harper did not appoint.
“The only way they could rule against us is to say they were wrong in 2001,” Chipeur told me. “It’s the same university, the same rules, the same province. It’s hard to find a distinction.”
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