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Rights + Justice

Thousands of Lawyers Vote Down Approval of Trinity Western School

Law Society of BC members oppose proposed faculty at faith-based university.

Ian Holliday 11 Jun

Ian Holliday is completing a practicum at The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

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Tuesday's vote does not automatically overturn the April decision of the Law Society's "benchers," or governing representatives, to admit graduates of Trinity Western's program. Instead, it represents the wish of the society's membership for benchers to change their decision.

More than 3,000 lawyers across the province have voted to ask the society that regulates their profession to overturn its approval of a proposed faculty of law at a faith-based university in British Columbia.

Members of the Law Society of B.C. voted 3,210 to 968 in favour of withdrawing the society's approval of the proposed Faculty of Law at Trinity Western University at a special meeting Tuesday.

The vote does not automatically overturn the April 11 decision of the society's "benchers" -- the lawyers charged with governing the organization -- to admit graduates of Trinity Western's program. Rather, the vote represents the wish of the society's membership for the benchers to change their decision.

The law society sets and enforces standards of professional conduct for the more than 11,000 practicing lawyers in B.C. It also sets the criteria for admission into the legal profession in B.C.

If the society's benchers choose to overturn their previous vote, graduates of the Trinity Western program will not be allowed to practice law in the province.

Lawyers cast ballots at 16 different locations around the province. Voting began at roughly 3 p.m. after more than two hours of debate. Polls remained open throughout the province until 6 p.m.

Controversy over school 'covenant'

More than 1,000 lawyers were present at the start of the meeting, which was held simultaneously in each of the 16 poll locations via conference call. The meeting began with the reading of the motion by Vancouver lawyer barbara findlay (for an explanation of why findlay uses lower case, visit her website), who launched into her argument in favour of the motion immediately after moving it.

"I am a lesbian lawyer," findlay began. "I am very proud to be standing here for the first time in the history of the Western world that an entire legal profession is here to consider the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lawyers."

The controversy over Trinity Western's proposed law school stems from the evangelical Christian university's "community covenant," which students agree to sign upon enrolling. Among other things, the covenant calls for students to abstain from sexual intimacy that "violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman." The school's detractors argue that this provision effectively bans gay and lesbian students from attending.

The school and its supporters argue that the covenant is a matter of religious freedom, and that the society refusing to accept the school's graduates as lawyers would constitute discrimination on the basis of religion. Law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia have already voted not to approve Trinity Western's law school, decisions the school is challenging in court.

Passionate pleas from all sides

Other speakers at Tuesday's meeting would take a narrower, more technical approach to these arguments, but findlay's remarks were expansive and personal. She spoke about becoming a lawyer in 1973 and the challenges she has faced before and since.

"Many lesbians, including me, were locked up in mental hospitals in the '60s because we were lesbians," findlay said. "That was the reason that I had to get what you probably didn't need -- a sanity certificate -- in order to practice law."

Trinity Western University president Bob Kuhn spoke immediately after findlay, and he also framed the conversation in broad terms.

"A vote in favour of the motion to disapprove TWU's law school communicates to TWU, its religious community, and many other people of faith, that they're not welcome to engage in the public square of Canadian pluralistic society," Kuhn said.

Trinity Western is not asking the law society to agree with its religious beliefs, he said, only to apply the law fairly in preventing discrimination and ensuring freedom of religion. He cited a 2001 Supreme Court of Canada decision that did not strike down Trinity Western's community covenant as evidence that this would be the correct approach.

Kuhn's and findlay's arguments would be reframed and repackaged throughout the afternoon by speakers on either side of the debate. In her remarks, findlay shared her perspective on religious freedom.

"I support religious freedom," findlay said. "You have every right to believe that I am a sinner, but when your discriminatory beliefs turn into actions that discriminate against me, then that's where you cross the line."

After concluding her remarks, findlay received a standing ovation from a majority of the lawyers in the room.  [Tyee]

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