Ontario appeal court upholds decision not to accredit evangelical law school

Ontario’s top court delivered a strong affirmation of LGBTQ rights on Wednesday when it upheld a decision not to accredit an evangelical Christian law school.

The Court of Appeal ruled that the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC), which regulates lawyers in Ontario, was entitled in 2014 to deny accreditation to Trinity Western University’s proposed law school over its “community covenant,” which students must abide by and prohibits sex outside of heterosexual marriage.

“My conclusion is a simple one,” wrote Justice James MacPherson for a unanimous three-judge panel. “The part of TWU’s community covenant in issue in this appeal is deeply discriminatory to the LGBTQ community, and it hurts.”

MacPherson wrote that the decision not to accredit does infringe on TWU’s right to freedom of religion, but not to the point where it must be overturned.

“The LSUC’s decision not to accredit TWU does not prevent the practice of a religious belief itself; rather it denies a public benefit because of the impact of that religious belief on others — members of the LGBTQ community.”

The 50-page judgment, released just days before Pride weekend in Toronto, was praised by the legal regulatory body and LGBTQ groups.

TWU’s covenant tells LGBTQ students “you’re not wanted here,” said Paul Jonathan Saguil, one of the lawyers who represented groups Out on Bay Street and OUTlaws, which include LGBTQ professionals and law school students.

“We’re obviously delighted with the outcome and quite pleased with the timing. Given all that’s happened with the LGBTQ community, especially with Orlando, we needed some good news,” said Saguil, referring to the shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub that left 49 people dead.

The Law Society was pleased the court found that the regulatory body acted fairly and reasonably, said its newly elected treasurer, Paul Schabas.

“It's significant that the court identified specifically that the Law Society has an important role to play in promoting a diverse profession, and that this is part of its public interest mandate,” he said.

Schabas voted against accreditation in 2014 in a 28-21 vote among the body’s “benchers,” who decide on policy. Trinity Western then applied to a lower court for judicial review of the decision, but the case was dismissed, leading to the Court of Appeal challenge.

“My position was largely similar to what the courts have articulated, which is that we have an obligation to not discriminate,” said Schabas.

“By accrediting Trinity Western, and in other words letting them into our licensing process, we would be effectively adopting a discriminatory path to licensing.”

The B.C.-based university is currently challenging similar decisions in the courts in Nova Scotia and British Columbia. The school said in a statement Wednesday that it would seek leave to appeal the Ontario ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada.

“The community covenant is a core part of defining the TWU community as distinctly Christian,” said university spokesperson Amy Robertson.

“We are not making a statement about LGBTQ people; we are making a statement about traditional Christian marriage, which is sacred to us. The same covenant calls for all members of the TWU community to respect the dignity of others regardless of their background.”

Saguil, who is openly gay and also a member of Out on Bay Street’s board of directors, said the covenant can be especially damaging to those who are still learning about themselves, mentioning that he personally didn’t fully come out until law school.

“This is a formative time for a lot of people,” he said.

“We want the best lawyers and law students, but when you’re considering merit, discriminatory considerations have nothing to do with it,” he continued. “It doesn’t make you a better or weaker lawyer or law student because of who you love, who you go to bed with or who you date.”