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Friday
Jan312014

Canadian Law Societies: Bastions of Intolerance?

Guest Post by Albertos Polizogopoulos                                                                    

Trinity Western University’s bid for a Christian law school is again in the news. TWU’s proposal to create a law school was approved by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada in December. The British Columbia government then granted TWU permission to offer law degrees. Unhappy with these decisions, some members of the legal community, and a number of provincial law societies, are seeking to circumvent the Federation’s ruling by launching a campaign against TWU and its future law students. They are advocating that individual provincial legal bodies prohibit TWU graduates from practicing law in their jurisdictions.

The Law Society of British Columbia, which had delegated its authority to approve new law schools to the Federation has recently changed its rules to allow it to veto against certain law schools. The Law Society of British Columbia and the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society have announced that they will hold hearings to consider whether they should admit graduates from TWU to their provincial bars.

The opposition stems from TWU’s Community Covenant which pledges students to abstaining from certain activities and behaviours during their studies including the viewing of pornography, the possession or use of alcohol on campus, and “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” TWU’s opponents argue that the Community Covenant is discriminatory towards the LGBT community and that there is no place in Canada for a law school that holds traditional Christian beliefs.

TWU’s application to create a law school has indeed fostered an environment of discrimination and intolerance, but it is TWU that is the victim. 

TWU’s position on sexual relationships is grounded in the Bible and is part of the institution’s, and its members’, sincerely held religious beliefs. As such, those who oppose the admission of TWU graduates to the practice of law are apparently actively advocating for religious discrimination in Canada.

TWU has not, does not and will not prevent students from the LGBT community from studying at TWU. In fact, TWU has made clear that it welcomes all students and its history and admittance practices support that position. The Community Covenant is with regard to behaviour and activity, not being or identity. This same Covenant requires its students and faculty to “treat all persons with respect and dignity, and uphold their God-given worth.”

If the Law Society of British Columbia or other law societies decide that they will not recognize the law degrees of TWU students because of the institution’s and the students’ religious beliefs, will those societies then also  refuse admission to the bar to everyone who holds a traditional view of marriage and sexuality? Will they prevent their citizens from traditional Christian, Judaic, Islamic, Bahá'í, Mormon, Sikh, Zoroastrian, and Jain backgrounds from practicing law?

And what about British Columbians who want to receive their legal services from a lawyer who shares and understands their belief system? Religious beliefs can sometimes play a significant role in certain family law disputes or estates matters. But this fact is irrelevant as certain law society heads apparently know better. Perhaps these citizens can try to seek out legal services from lawyers from provinces that truly value a multicultural and diverse bar.

If we, as a society, are not offended by the exclusion of religious minorities from the public square on the basis of their religious belief for one reason, then we will not be offended by their exclusion on the basis of any reason. As a society, Canadians pride themselves on being multicultural, polyethnic, religiously diverse and tolerant of all. But talk is cheap and in reality, many who claim to be tolerant are really only tolerant of ethnic, cultural and religious views, attitudes and practices with which they agree.

What’s perhaps more surprising, at least from a legal perspective, is that the issue of TWU’s Community Covenant has already been ruled on by the Supreme Court of Canada. In 2001, the Court ruled in Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers that the British Columbia College of Teachers had no legal justification for refusing to accredit TWU’s graduates on the basis of TWU’s Community Covenant. The Court found no evidence that TWU’s students, who had signed and abided by the Community Covenant, demonstrated any discriminatory behaviour in the exercising of their duties as teaching professionals.

One would think that Canada’s provincial law societies such as the Law Society of British Columbia, which are made up of lawyers who are ostensibly aware of significant Supreme Court of Canada decisions, and from apparently superior, non-religious law schools, would know that case. Or at least acknowledge its implications.

Whatever the Law Society of British Columbia, or other provincial law societies think TWU’s Community Covenant or TWU as a university, if they exclude TWU graduates from practicing law in their jurisdiction, they become the intolerants guilty of discrimination. Their discrimination is based on the religious beliefs of TWU, its students and its faculty.

Is the fact that future TWU law graduates subscribed to TWU’s Community Covenant grounds to exclude them from the practice of law? What of graduates from other law schools who share TWU’s position on sexual relationships? Should they also be excluded from the practice of law on the sole basis of their religious beliefs?

The real question here is “should Canadian Christians be excluded from the practice of law?” Do we, as a society, endorse a faith-based test to practicing law? That is the inevitable conclusion and consequence if we endorse the barring of TWU law graduates from practicing law on the sole basis of their view of sexual relationships.

Albertos Polizogopoulos is a Partner with the firm Vincent Dagenais Gibson LLP/s.r.l. in Ottawa, Ontario. He regularly appears before courts and appellate courts including the Supreme Court of Canada to advocate for his clients’ rights to freedom of religion, freedom of expression and parental authority. He also frequently appears in media interviews and on panels to discuss constitutional law. @CharterLaw

Mr. Polizogopoulos is currently acting as legal counsel to the EFC in the Loyola High School v. A.G. Quebec case, and has previously acted for the EFC in Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony case, the S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chenes case and the Cuthbertson v. Rasouli case.

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