Societies governing the legal profession have the right to deny accreditation to a proposed law school at a Christian university in British Columbia, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled.
In a pair of keenly anticipated decisions Friday, the high court said law societies in Ontario and British Columbia were entitled to ensure equal access to the bar, support diversity and prevent harm to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students.
LISTEN: Supreme Court rules against Christian law school
The cases pitted two significant societal values – freedom of religion and promotion of equality – against one another.
Trinity Western University, a private post-secondary institution in Langley, B.C., was founded on evangelical Christian principles and requires students to adhere to a covenant allowing sexual intimacy only between a married man and woman.
Law societies overseeing the profession in Ontario and British Columbia say they would not license graduates from Trinity Western because the covenant amounts to discrimination against LGBTQ people.
WATCH ABOVE: Trinity Western spokesperson ‘disappointed’ by Supreme Court decision.
The Court of Appeal for Ontario had upheld the rejection, while B.C.’s top court sided with the university.
In each case, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favour of the respective law society.
A majority found that the decisions to deny accreditation were reasonable because they appropriately balanced the interference to freedom of religion with the public-interest objectives of the law societies.
WATCH: Intervenor says Supreme Court decision on Trinity Western represents a danger to religious freedom
In the decision concerning Ontario, five Supreme Court justices said the province’s law society interfered only with the university’s ability to operate a law school governed by the mandatory covenant.
“This limitation is of minor significance because a mandatory covenant is not absolutely required to study law in a Christian environment in which people follow certain religious rules of conduct, and attending a Christian law school is preferred, not necessary, for prospective TWU law students.”
Earl Philips, executive director for the proposed law school told CKNW’s Jon McComb Show he’s disappointed with the decision.
“Disappointment that it appears the Supreme Court doesn’t think there is room in Canadian diversity for a law school at a small Christian university that upholds traditional Christian values.”
WATCH: Supreme Court of Canada rules against B.C. university
He said the school will take time in the coming weeks to analyze the decision before making any decisions. But he said TWU has amended its community covenant before.
“I suspect it will be reviewed in the future, and we will certainly be looking at this decision and saying ‘what does this mean for our Christian community’,” he said.
“What clearly won’t change is the core belief, based on our Christian faith and the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. That’s the core of the community covenant. I can’t see that changing.”
LISTEN: TWU responds to Supreme Court ruling
Victoria-based Lawyer Michael Mulligan, one of the lead lawyers challenging Trinity Western University, said the core issue was the Law Societies’ duties in regards to Trinity Western itself, not its would-be students.
“What the Law Society was deciding was not whether a future theoretical graduate of this school would somehow act in a discriminatory way as a lawyer. There’s no evidence and no reason to think that that’s going to be the case,” he said.
“When analyzing whether there should be approval for the school, the Supreme Court of Canada found it was quite proper to look at their discriminatory policy, and the duty of the Law Society, and that it was proper for the Law Society to say no to that.”
Trinity Western proposed the law school in 2012 and received approval to open from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the province’s Ministry of Advanced Education.
WATCH: Supreme Court decision relegates freedom of conscience, religion: Priest
The university wanted to ensure its graduates would be eligible to be called to the bar throughout Canada, and therefore applied to the provincial law societies for accreditation of the planned law school.
Six law societies – Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador – have granted accreditation.
In Ontario, the benchers of the Law Society of Upper Canada – since renamed the Law Society of Ontario – denied accreditation to the school in a 28-21 vote.
WATCH: Global News’ past coverage of the Trinity Western University court case
In reviewing the decision, an Ontario court found the society had undertaken a reasonable balancing of the charter protections at issue. The ruling was upheld on appeal.
British Columbia’s law society denied recognition to the school on the basis of a binding referendum of its members. The reviewing court ruled that the process ignored an obligation to consider the competing charter rights at play, and set aside the law society’s decision. An appeal court affirmed the ruling.