This really isn’t the time to be starting a law school, at least in the United States. Lawyers face uncertain job prospects–the poor economy, outsourcing, and technological innovation continue to reduce demand for lawyers–and fewer and fewer people see a legal education as a good investment. Applications are down dramatically. Maybe this situation is temporary, maybe it’s permanent; we’ll have to wait and see. But starting a law school in this environment–you really have to wonder.
None of these hard facts explains the controversy surrounding a proposed new Canadian law school, however. Trinity Western University (TWU) in British Columbia wishes to start the first religious law school in Canada. The Council of Canadian Law Deans opposes the new school because TWU requires students, faculty and staff to honor traditional Christian sexual ethics: no sex outside heterosexual marriage. This requirement, the deans argue, discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation in violation of Canadian law. TWU maintains that a Canadian Supreme Court case from 2001 allows it to impose the requirement as a matter of religious freedom.
The Federation of Canadian Law Schools, the body that accredits law schools in Canada, has not yet decided whether to grant TWU permission to start its new school. Whatever decision the Federation takes, a lawsuit will no doubt follow. Canadian law on religious exercise uses a balancing test similar to the one in the European Conventi0n on Human Rights. Under that balancing test, government may limit citizens’ freedom of religion if necessary to protect important countervailing interests, including “the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” Just last week, in fact, the European Court of Human Rights applied this test and ruled that the European Convention allows member states to limit employees’ religious freedom in order to protect the right of same-sex couples to be free from discrimination.
It’s a different jurisdiction, of course, and the Canadian and European cases don’t line up exactly. As a religious university, TWU could raise arguments the European case didn’t address. But, like the European case, TWU’s claim will require judges to balance the right of religious exercise against the rights of sexual minorities. If Canadian judges adopt the ECtHR’s general view of things, TWU’s chances of prevailing in the long run don’t look great.
Mark Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University.