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Evangelical Christian university gets preliminary approval for law school

British Columbia's private evangelical Christian Trinity Western University has received the go-ahead for its law school from Canada's umbrella law societies body, despite accusations the school discriminates against the sexual orientation of students, faculty, and staff.

The Federation of Law Societies of Canada, which represents 14 provincial law societies governing over 100,000 lawyers and notaries nationwide, announced its preliminary approval of the proposed law school in a press release this morning.

"The Federation followed a fair, rigorous and thoughtful process," reads a statement from Federation President Marie-Claude Bélanger-Richard.

"We took into account and listened very carefully to all points of view that were expressed about this proposal."

One major point of concern about Trinity Western University's (TWU) proposed law school -- which, if approved by the provincial government, is set to be Canada's first private religious law school -- regarded the school’s mandatory Community Covenant agreement for students, faculty, and staff.

In addition to asking TWU community members to voluntarily abstain from alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs, the school asks them to abstain from "sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman." Many interpret this as discrimination against queer, gay, lesbian, and bisexual students, faculty, and staff.

Signing the Covenant is part of the school's student application process. The school's website states: "Maintenance of one's integrity with regard to the Community Covenant is essential for continued membership in the community. Once a commitment has been indicated through signature, failure to respect the Community Covenant is a breach of personal integrity, a matter which may, in some cases, be of greater concern than the violation itself."

The Council of Canadian Law Deans issued a letter to the Federation on Nov. 20 requesting during their consideration of TWU's application that they investigate the Covenant for any inconsistencies with provincial or national law because "discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is unlawful in Canada and fundamentally at odds with the core values of Canadian law schools."

During a protest against the application outside York University's Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto on Oct. 18, Toronto lawyer and B.C. student Angela Chaisson told the Province newspaper that the school's discrimination against different sexualities compromised its ability to teach law: "It's completely unacceptable. Acceptance at law school should be based on merit.

"This isn't a thought-police or freedom-of-expression issue. It's crossing the line. Freedom of religion doesn't trump equality."

The Federation says it did have three concerns when approving the university's application: its ability to teach legal ethics and public law, and whether it could afford to run a law school.

The Federation also acknowledged its approval committee had a limited mandate: ensuring the school could produce graduates that meet national standards for the law society's bar associations. The Federation established a Special Advisory Committee to review issues such as the university's Covenant and whether it would discriminate against potential students based on their sexuality.

"The advisory committee concluded that as long as the National Requirement is met, there is no public interest reason to exclude future graduates of the TWU program from law society bar admission programs,” reads the Federation's statement. The Special Advisory Committee also proposed a "non-discrimination" provision be added to the National Requirement.

Proponents of the law school referenced freedom -- and former African National Congress founder and president Nelson Mandela -- when praising the Federation's approval in a release from Trinity Western.

"Mandela's recent passing taught us the historic value of freedom -- this future Law School encompasses and encourages freedom of enquiry, freedom of discussion, freedom of religion, while being open to all -- to speak plainly ... that's big," reads a quote from Eugene Meehan, a lawyer with Supreme Advocacy LLP in Ottawa, who defended TWU's law school proposal in an op-ed in March 8 edition of The Lawyers Weekly.

TWU still needs approval from B.C.'s Ministry of Advanced Education before the law school can start. Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk said in an emailed statement that the Federation's approval coincides with completion of the program quality assessment by the ministry's Degree Quality Assessment Board. The university has exempt status from the Degree Quality Assessment Board, meaning their programs do not undergo full review from the Board.

"The ministry will now review the proposed degree," reads his statement.

"As the minister of Advanced Education, once I have studied both reviews, I will be able to make a final determination."

TWU president Bob Kuhn, himself a lawyer, anticipates today's approval from the Federation will move the conversation about a private evangelical Christian law school away from accusations of discrimination.

"While the university does have strong religious roots, it is committed to fully and comprehensively teaching all aspects of law including human rights, ethics and professionalism," reads his statement.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter.

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