Last week, Justice Jamie Campbell of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court delivered a scathing indictment of the decision of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society (the “Society”) to recognize law degrees for the proposed law school at Trinity Western University (“TWU”) only if TWU changes its “community covenant” against sex outside the confines of a legal marriage between a man and woman. The focus of the Society’s concerns is that the Community Covenant would have the effect of discriminating against members of the LGBT community. His judgment (Trinity Western University v. Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, 2015 NSSC 25) is the first of what will no doubt be a series of judicial pronouncements on the various provincial law societies’ decision to accredit or not to accredit TWU’s proposed law school. Challenges in British Columbia and Ontario are also well on their way to being heard. Yet again, the collision between equality rights and freedom of religion finds itself on the center stage of Canada’s judicial arenas. The last time this issue went to the Supreme Court of Canada was in 2001 in yet another TWU case, Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers, 2001 SCC 31. While the Court held that the Charter was not directly applicable in that case, it did determine that any concerns of the College of Teachers respecting the discriminatory effects against homosexuals were to be subject to the respect for the principles of the religious faith professed by TWU. Justice Campbell does not consider that the time is nigh for that 2001 judicial determination to change.
On April 11, 2014, the benchers of the Law Society of British Columbia approved the application of the future law school of Trinity Western University, a Christian faith-based university located in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, to be an accredited law school. TWU obliges its students to sign and comply with a religious-based covenant that only sex in marriage between a man and a woman is permitted. The concern is that this covenant discriminates against gays and lesbians (and unmarried couples). The Law Society’s vote was 15 to 6 in support of the application. One of British Columbia’s most eminent constitutional scholars, Joseph Arvay, Q.C., was one of the six who opposed the application. On April 24, 2014, the Law Society of Upper Canada rejected TWU’s application for accreditation. The vote was 28 to 21 against accreditation. The next day, the Law Society of Nova Scotia met and voted 11 to 9 to approve TWU’s application — on the condition that TWU drop the requirement that its students sign and respect the covenant. In the meantime, back on the West Coast, over 1000 members of the Law Society of British Columbia signed documents demanding that the decision of the Law Society’s benchers be reconsidered by a full meeting of the membership. Only 500 such members were necessary to require such a special meeting. That meeting will have to be held sometime in the next two months. This collision between equality and anti-discrimination rights on one hand and freedom of religion has been played out before. The British Columbia College of Teachers and TWU went to the Supreme Court on this issue nearly 15 years ago and TWU won: Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers, 2001 SCC 31.. Before the law societies, TWU has argued that this case is no different. I must say that I disagree.