Earl Phillips is facing a conundrum.
At the moment, the B.C. Supreme Court is deliberating over whether or not to allow future graduates of Trinity Western University’s proposed school of law, which Phillips is the executive director of, to practice law in the province.
The point of contention is the Christian school’s community covenant or rather, the portion of the covenant that says community members agree to voluntarily abstain “from the sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”
It was precisely that wording that prompted the Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC) to block accreditation of future grads, which resulted in the matter being brought before the courts last week.
“The TWU covenant is discriminatory because it effectively excludes those in the LGBTQ community and those in common-law relationships,” David Jordan, communications officer for the LSBC told Yahoo Canada via email.
But the province isn’t the first to have a law society push back against it.
In July, an Ontario upheld the decision by the province’s Law Society of Upper Canada to deny accreditation of graduates. In Nova Scotia, the Supreme court ruled in favour of the school, saying the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society doesn’t have a right to block accreditation of grads.
The Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the Alberta and Saskatchewan’s bar associations also gave their approval while Manitoba and Saskatchewan have put decisions on hold.
“I think 99 per cent of the community covenant is unobjectionable,” says Phillips. “It really comes down to the fact that we do have a sexual ethic that seems to be going against the trend or the grain of Canadian society today.”
In essence, the case put religious freedoms in the ring against same-sex equality rights with both sides arguing discrimination.
Yahoo Canada spoke with Phillips to get an understanding of why the wording is so important to the university that it’s willing to risk its students’ rights to practice law.
It seems like a contentious moment for the future of Trinity Western University’s law school. Ontario has blocked the school, B.C. is fighting it, you’ve got approval from some but not others. What’s causing this debate?
The starting point to understanding the community covenant is to appreciate that Trinity Western University is a Christian community. It has a mandate to provide higher education from a Christian viewpoint. Community is very important in the Christian church. It’s based on the idea that we are all stronger together, that each of should bring our gifts, our skills, and our abilities forward and we should then also recognize and acknowledge the different gifts, skills, and abilities that other people have.
But how does that translate into the university?
From a university point of view that means we will be better teachers, better students, and better employees when we agree to live, work, and study together within a community that has common goals. Everyone commits to that and they commit to one another. If there is any problem under the community covenant, the goal is restoration to community.
What is the accountability element then? What happens in the event that you find another student has engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage, whether it is same sex or otherwise?
The accountability process is the same for whatever the issue is under the community covenant. We would come alongside the person and try to understand the facts about what has happened to properly ensure that we really do understand what’s been going on. If there has been a breach of any provision in the community covenant we want the person to acknowledge that they understand the breach and then we will ask what we can do to help to help that person live within integrity under the community covenant.
So same-sex relations aren’t cause for expulsion?
It’s a behavioural covenant and for students it means while you are attending TWU you commit to this. It is not a statement against same sex marriage or against gay and lesbian people. It is a statement that says when, in this community, we agree to act in this way and we will commit to one another to do that. Here is the Christian biblical basis that this community follows for why they have the behavioural covenant. You don’t have to believe in those or be Christian or be straight, you just have to understand this is how we are going to work and stay together. We invite you to join us if you want to commit to us in the same way.
It’s clearly rubbing people the wrong way and coming off as anti-LGBTQ. If it were meant to be inclusive, wouldn’t it make sense to adjust the language in the covenant to reflect that?
The university is always looking and inquiring and questioning all manners of things – that’s the nature of a good university. To make that change would mean we are no longer being true to ourselves; we are no longer the authentic Christian community that we want to be. We simply can’t say we are going to do this because it’s popular or we aren’t going to do this because it’s not popular.
What about the students? I understand the covenant is an important part of the fabric of the institution you’re trying to build, but doesn’t it negate the idea of having the institution and training lawyers if they’re not able to practice law in certain provinces?
I think there’s a real threat that if the denial of accreditation to TWU by any of the individual law sites in Canada, if that is upheld, I think it brings into question the ability of people of faith to actually participate in the public sphere in Canada to actually manifest their beliefs as our Supreme Court of Canada repeatedly said we should have the right to. I think it affects all people of faith as well as institutions of faith including the universities.
What happens if you don’t get accreditation from the Law Society of B.C.?
in addition to accreditation we need the BC Minister of Advanced Education’s approval for the law degree program. We had that approval but it was revoked when the BC Law Society changed its mind and revoked the accreditation. The Minister’s decision showed that the degree approval was contingent on accreditation in BC. Without accreditation in BC, it appears we will not be able to offer a law degree. However, if we can regain accreditation in BC, that should be enough to get degree approval and allow us to open the School of Law.
So what’s next then?
The question becomes why is it that a community of faith that sincerely holds the views cannot decide to come together in a university setting to work, live, and study together under such a covenant? Why should they be in effect punished by lack of accreditation from law societies? Law societies themselves are not suggesting that the graduates wouldn’t be good lawyers or serve the public, including gay or lesbian clients, with integrity and care and professionalism. The arguments with the Law Society of B.C. went out of their way to say they welcome Christian lawyers and lawyers of other faiths who hold these beliefs on same-sex marriage and they are an important part of diversity in the profession. They acknowledge it but they won’t allow a student who chooses to be educated in such a place to practice as a lawyer.