The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled against Trinity Western University (TWU) in a case that pits religious freedom against LGBTQ+ rights. TWU is a BC-based evangelical Christian university with a satellite campus in Ontario that was denied accreditation for a proposed law school by the law societies of BC and Ontario on the grounds that TWU discriminates against LGBTQ+ people. On June 15, the Supreme Court ruled 7–2 in favour of the law societies.
The case arose over a covenant agreement that all TWU students have to sign, which binds them to a code of conduct that specifically requires students to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”
“The community covenant is a solemn pledge in which members place themselves under obligations on the part of the institution to its members, the members to the institution, and the members to one another,” reads Section One of the agreement on the school’s website.
“TWU reserves the right to question, challenge or discipline any member in response to actions that impact personal or social welfare.”
As a result of the university’s community covenant agreement, concerns about the personal safety and open access of LGBTQ+ students were raised by various groups, including U of T campus group Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Trans People of the University of Toronto (LGBTOUT).
On November 30, 2017, a two-day hearing for the case was held by the Supreme Court against the university. LGBTOUT, which is the longest-standing LGBTQ+ group in Canada, travelled to the Supreme Court to act as an intervenor on the case, arguing that the law school “would harm prospective LGBTQ+ students, who would be effectively barred from TWU just because of their sexual or gender orientation.”
An intervenor on a Supreme Court case is meant to provide perspective to the matter and may be brought in at the discretion of the court.
In a statement released on the group’s Facebook page, LGBTOUT called the ruling “fantastic news.”
“There is no place for LGBTQ+ discrimination in the legal profession or in Canadian society. LGBTOUT is thrilled with this news and victory for our community, especially as it comes during Pride Month!”
Judges Suzanne Côté and Russell Brown were the only judges that sided with TWU, arguing that judicial intervention should be more limited when it comes to approving law programs.
“While, therefore, the [Law Society of BC] has purported to act in the cause of ensuring equal access to the profession, it has effectively denied that access to a segment of Canadian society, solely on religious grounds. In our respectful view, this unfortunate state of affairs merits judicial intervention, not affirmation.”
This is not the first time TWU has faced the Supreme Court over grounds of religious freedom. In 2001, the British Columbia College of Teachers refused to accredit their teacher training programs due to the discriminatory nature of the community covenant.
After the court’s ruling, it is uncertain whether TWU will continue its plans for its proposed law school as the Law Societies of British Columbia and Ontario refuse to accredit their law degrees.