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Comment: Law-school debate hinges on freedom, not religion

The Trinity Western University law school debate has proven divisive, as Shannon Corregan’s May 2 column illustrates. People on both sides of the issue believe strongly in their views. There is a good reason for that.

The Trinity Western University law school debate has proven divisive, as Shannon Corregan’s May 2 column illustrates. People on both sides of the issue believe strongly in their views.

There is a good reason for that. Both faith and sexuality go to the very core of a person. Neither can be compromised without compromising the whole of who that person is. To be meaningful, the debate must transcend every person’s individual stance on faith and sexuality.

We rely on the law to protect the sexual and religious freedoms of everyone. We start with the Charter and the various bodies of human-rights legislation, and we rely on the courts to clarify and protect the values that they embody.

The Supreme Court of Canada already determined in 2001 that TWU has the right to provide professional education as it does, with the covenant in place. It found that a private university such as TWU, and its students, are entitled to operate in an environment that allows them to live their faith. That right, the court found, includes expressing and living their faith with the covenant that TWU students and staff voluntarily sign.

Contrary to Corregan’s comments, the TWU covenant does not condemn what other people believe or do. Instead, it sets out a series of behaviours that its signatories voluntarily agree to undertake while attending TWU. Those behaviours are consistent with the faith beliefs of a certain religious minority, genuinely held for 2,000 years.

Aside from sexual abstinence, signatories agree to not smoke or drink on campus, or to engage in a number of other behaviours that this religious minority group considers as threats to its collective values. The list of affected behaviours is found on the TWU website.

The issue is not whether those behaviours and the religious beliefs behind them are right or wrong. We mortals are not the judge of that. The issue is whether people are allowed to hold those beliefs, and to live their lives in accordance with those beliefs.

People of many faiths feel that the secular world is a threat to them, full of behaviour that erodes their values and threatens the core of who they are. This may sound odd to some people, but faith to many involves much more than an hour of ceremony once a week in the refuge of like-minded people.

To many people, including those who choose to attend TWU, every action, every aspect of life, is informed by their faith. And asking them to give that up, or hide it, runs contrary to everything we stand for as Canadians. We do not condone other countries restricting the religious freedoms of their citizens. We cannot condone it here at home.

The other perspective, of course, is that certain people are being discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality. But that issue was already resolved by the Supreme Court. In a case involving TWU and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, the court found that the voluntary covenant, in a private-school setting, was permitted. The BCTF was seeking to prevent teacher graduates of TWU from being licensed to teach because of the covenant. The court found that the BCTF could not do so, on the basis of religious discrimination. Today, TWU teaching graduates are free to work as teachers because of that court decision.

The same situation is repeating itself. In a few years, TWU will be graduating people with law degrees. The Law Society of B.C. is the gatekeeper to the legal profession. No one is allowed to practise law in B.C. without the approval of the society.

The law society has already accredited the TWU law school, so that its graduates are free to practise law in B.C. Seeking to reverse that decision would amount to the same religious discrimination that the Supreme Court disallowed in 2001. It would mean that people with certain defined religious beliefs are not eligible, exactly because of those beliefs, to practise law. The Supreme Court was right — we cannot allow that to happen.

The law is clear. TWU and its students are allowed to do as they do, whether other people like it or not. Regardless of our own personal beliefs, let us not allow the debate to result in preventing people with certain religious beliefs from being licensed to practise law. If we allow that, the religious beliefs and practices of every B.C. lawyer would be next up for the law society to scrutinize and regulate.

This issue is not a battle between one group based on religion and another based on sexuality. We all know that the correct outcome is one which allows both groups to co-exist, respectful of the other.

The issue is about protecting the freedoms of all Canadians. When we start to favour one group’s Charter rights at the expense of another’s, we all lose. 

Max Durando is a lawyer practising in Victoria.