U v. u (Part 1): Trinity Western University’s Push for the First Canadian Christian Law School

20130319-070540.jpgI’ve been following with great interest the current controversy surrounding the desire of a local Christian university, Trinity Western University (or TWU), to establish Canada’s first private Christian law school. TWU wants to establish its own law school because, it claims, Christian students are treated unfairly in secular universities due to their religious beliefs, presumably such that these students may be prevented from pursuing careers in law. The head of the Council of Canadian Law Deans, Bill Flanagan, is strongly opposed, because, as he has stated, TWU’s “community covenant,” which forbids homosexual sex, and possibly also limits academic freedom, is “fundamentally at odds with the core values of all Canadian law schools.” Flanagan has insisted that he has nothing against Christian universities as such, but only with TWU’s “community covenant.” (The religious basis of TWU is Evangelical protestant. Other Christian denominations and, it follows, other private universities and colleges associated with these denominations, are more open-minded about the issue of homosexuality.) In January, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association became involved, supporting TWU and denouncing Flanagan. The BCCLA accused the deans of Canada’s secular law schools of wanting to monopolize legal education and keep religiously-minded people from becoming law students and lawyers.

Although I’ve generally been supportive of Trinity over the years (I went to elementary school with the children of the first President of Trinity, so Trinity has been on my radar almost since its inception), I don’t support Trinity on this issue. My sense is that Trinity isn’t being entirely honest about its reasons for wanting to start its own law school. I suspect the main reason that Trinity now wants its own law school is to generate more income. Trinity is now seriously in debt, and the tuition fees paid by law students could help to alleviate some of this debt. (I don’t know what the fees are that Trinity proposes charging its law students, but I suspect they are well in excess of the fees charged law students at public, secular, Canadian universities. Trinity currently charges its undergraduate general arts students over $20,000, four times as much as such students are charged at Canada’s public universities.)

It seems to me to be disingenuous to argue that religiously-minded people are likely to have greater difficulty in law school than other students due to their religious beliefs. I’ve never attended law school myself (although I did apply, and was accepted); however, when I was doing graduate work in education (for which I opted instead of law school), I did take a course called Law and Higher Education, taught by a practicing judge, who taught the course using the law school model. The course basically consisted of reviewing existing case law pertaining to various educational issues, and I found the course extremely satisfying–indeed more satisfying than the majority of university courses I took over the years, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. What set this course apart was its close connection with the current standards of a profession existing outside of universities, namely the Canadian legal profession, and with the current mores of Canada as a whole. Canadian law enshrines religious tolerance, and not only the content of this one law course I took but also the manner in which it was taught reflected this. I’m not a practicing Christian myself (I was brought up in the United Church, but stopped attending when I was a teenager), but I find it hard to see how any religiously-minded person would have difficulty with courses like this.

It would be interesting to have a conversation now about this subject with ‘K’, the son of Trinity’s first President, who sat directly behind me through Grade 7 at White Rock Elementary, and who became a good buddy. (If you’re reading this, ‘K’, remember “Very funny little bunny . . . ?”) I lost touch with ‘K’ after my family moved to Vancouver when I was in Grade 8, but I Googled him recently, after I’d heard about the current controversy at Trinity, and learned that, ironically, he became a lawyer, and now has a successful practice in the United States. I also learned that he went to law school at the University of British Columbia. I don’t assume that ‘K’ still subscribed to the religion in which he was brought up by the time he reached law school; however, if he did, I doubt that he would have had problems in law school because of his religion. He didn’t seem to have such problems at our secular elementary school.

Of course, to say that the justification that TWU has publicly presented for wanting its own law school is invalid is not to say that this institution should not be entitled to have its own law school, on other grounds. I believe that, if it were at any other time in history, TWU would be entitled to have its own law school to the same extent that our secular universities have been entitled to have their own law schools: TWU would be entitled to subsidize its undergraduate programs with law-school tuitions, just as our secular universities have done, and do. The problem is that we are now at a point in history at which Canadian universities in general are being seriously reevaluated, and the question has become not whether TWU should have its own law school but, rather, whether professional education, including legal education, any longer really belongs within Universities (in the capital ‘U’ sense), of any kind. In my opinion, the answer is no. Under the current circumstances, I believe it would be folly to expand legal education in universities, whether secular or Christian.

I’ll have more to say about Universities (in the capital ‘U’ sense) versus universities (in the small ‘u’ sense), especially in relation to the study of law, in my next post.

One thought on “U v. u (Part 1): Trinity Western University’s Push for the First Canadian Christian Law School

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