Trinity Western case heads to Nova Scotia court of appeal
Barrister's society says covenant violates Charter of Rights as it pertains to sexual orientation
Two things you're never supposed to talk about in polite company: sex and religion. Those two subjects collide head-on this week at the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal.
The province's highest court is being asked to rule in a case that pits a small private university in British Columbia against the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society.
The issue is if graduates from a proposed law school at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., should be allowed to practice law in Nova Scotia.
The NSBS takes the position that they should not.
Trinity Western is a Christian university. As such, it requires students and staff to abide by its community covenant. That covenant includes a provision that students abstain from sexual intimacy "that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman."
"We would say that the community covenant, in that respect, really has nothing to do with wanting to push away members of the LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] communities," said Trinity Western's Amy Robertson, who's in Halifax for this week's court hearing.
"We do welcome LGBT to Trinity Western who want to be part of our Christian community. There are gay people at Trinity Western who find it sort of a safe, respectful place to be," she said.
Equality versus freedom of religion
The barristers' society says that covenant violates the Charter of Rights as it pertains to sexual orientation.
"So there's the obvious issue that's at stake here which is the balancing of freedom of religion versus the balance with equality rights," said Jill Perry, president of the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society, on Tuesday.
The society has already lost the first round in this battle.
In January of last year, Justice Jamie Campbell of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ruled the society exceeded its authority by saying it would refuse to allow Trinity Western graduates to practice law in Nova Scotia.
"The extent to which NSBS members or members of the community are outraged or suffer minority stress because of the law school's policies does not amount to a grant of jurisdiction over the university," Campbell wrote in his decision.
"There is a difference between recognizing the degree and expressing approval of the moral, religious, or other positions of the institution," he added.
Perry says Trinity West's covenant is the sticking point. "We cannot just sign off on an institution that has this discriminatory admissions policy."
This appeal is being closely watched. Fourteen groups have intervenor status at this hearing, and they run the social and religious gamut, including the Catholic Civil Rights League, the Attorney General of Canada, the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Secular Alliance.
'Space to disagree'
Robertson said the university community is well aware of the scrutiny.
"The very fact that this is all happening sort of necessitates that Trinity Western students will be sensitive to these issues," she said.
"We're a university where we pride ourselves on academic freedom. There's space to disagree. There's space to discuss."
As the appellant, lawyers for the NSBS, will be first to argue at this appeal. A spokesperson said that could take four hours or more, depending on the number of questions from the five-member panel of judges hearing the case.
Intervenors who support the society's position are expected to go next, followed by the lawyer for Trinity Western and then intervenors that support the university.
Similar cases are making their way through the court systems in Ontario and British Columbia. The Nova Scotia case is the first to make it this far.
Both sides say given the level of interest and the importance of the issues, they would not be surprised if this dispute ends up before the Supreme Court of Canada.