A step back for gay rights
Much is made of how quickly the tide has turned toward equality for gay and lesbians. And it’s true — things are better. Certainly, many things — such as marriage — are easier for queer people today.
Still, the day-to-day experience of being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) remains fraught.
LGBT youth are disproportionately homeless, kicked out by unsupportive families. These youths kill themselves at alarmingly higher rates than their straight counterparts. Even hailing a cab is more difficult when you’re holding hands with someone of the same gender. The experience of being gay still entails daily acts of discrimination, large and small, that strip people of their dignity.
That things are better than the bad old days does not mean that we don’t have a long, long way to go. Moving backwards on equality should not be an option.
But moving backwards is exactly what the Federation of Law Societies and the government of British Columbia will do if they grant accreditation to a law school at Trinity Western University, in Langley, B.C. Trinity Western is associated with a tiny Christian church that relies heavily on the literal text of the Bible — and its policies are explicitly discriminatory toward LGBT people.
In the closed community of Trinity Western, all students and staff must sign a “covenant” requiring them to accept biblical doctrines and “to abstain from all sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”
That’s right — a man and a woman. Lesbian and gay married couples are forbidden from having sex. Trinity Western advises applicants that those “who find themselves unable to maintain the integrity of their commitment should seek a living-learning situation more acceptable to them.” (Before 2001, these applicants were advised to “look into UIG [University of Instant Gratification] or AGU [Anything Goes University]”.) Applicants who refuse to make this pledge will not be granted any of the 60 places to be created at Trinity Western Law School.
The result: if you’re gay and you want to be a lawyer, you will have a smaller chance of doing that than the straight student in the next row. Fewer law school places will be available to you. Trinity Western intends to impose restrictions just like those that once excluded bright Jews and blacks from law and medicine, but which have long since been repudiated in Canada.
Trinity Western has steadfastly denied that it discriminates. But in 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada found that the university indeed discriminated against gay people: “We conclude that a homosexual student would not be tempted to apply for admission, and could only sign the so-called student contract at a considerable personal cost.”
Shamefully, approval was given to that discrimination because of its context. That case involved Trinity Western’s right to train students to teach in the education system. The leeway afforded to Trinity Western in 2001— long before the tide turned toward equality for gay and lesbian peoples or the legalization of gay marriage — does not apply in the context of a law school. As the Supreme Court pointed out, Canada’s teacher training and university systems have long included schools that have a history of religious affiliation. Thus the Court allowed Trinity Western’s teaching program to exclude queer applicants based on their interpretation of the Bible.
Canada, however, has no history of religiously affiliated law schools, and certainly not one banning a minority community. Quite the opposite. Our legal tradition has always emphasized the separation of Church and State.
Having your own law school isn’t a requirement of religious freedom. Freedom of religion is only violated where claimants’ “religious beliefs or conduct might reasonably or actually be threatened.” But refusing to accredit a law school that discriminates against LGBT students is hardly “capable of interfering with religious belief or practice.” Operating a law school is not part of Christian belief, nowhere is it mentioned in the Bible. And no religious group in Canada has ever before asserted a need to run their own law school in order to fully express their religious beliefs. Certainly such an assertion by a religious group that insists on banning a minority community would be hypocritical. The grounds for accreditation are dubious.
Things are easier for queer people now. And this is a good thing. But we are about to make it more difficult for queer people to become lawyers. We are on the verge of taking an unacceptable step in the wrong direction. Clayton Ruby is a lawyer at Ruby Shiller Chan Hasan and editor of the Canadian Rights Reporter. Angela Chaisson is a lawyer at Ruby Shiller Chan Hasan. Bob Gallagher is co-founder of Canadians for Equal Marriage.