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Christian university launches court action in 3 provinces over its law school

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VANCOUVER - A Christian university in British Columbia that requires students to sign a pledge abstaining from sex outside heterosexual marriage is taking legal action in three provinces over what it describes as religious discrimination.

Trinity Western University announced plans Tuesday to sue law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia, which both voted last month to effectively ban graduates of the law school from practising in those provinces.

The school said it will also apply to be part of a court case in B.C., where a lawsuit is challenging the provincial government's decision to allow the school to grant degrees.

Trinity Western, a privately funded university with about 4,000 students in B.C.'s Fraser Valley, plans to open a law school in the fall of 2016, but it has faced resistance over its so-called community covenant, which all students are required to sign.

The covenant includes, among other things, a pledge not to engage in sex outside of marriage — defined in the document as between a man and a woman. Students can face discipline for violating the covenant, either on or off campus, according to the school's student handbook.

In a video posted to the school's website explaining the legal action, Trinity Western president Bob Kuhn defended the covenant and said the university has done nothing wrong.

"We are not prepared to throw over the values that have been traditionally held in the Christian community and in the communities of many faiths just because society has changed its sexual ethic," Kuhn said in the video.

"It's clearly not unlawful to do what Trinity has done, which is to define its community — a community which people can join, or not, depending on their comfort level."

The Law Society of Upper Canada's board of directors voted last month not to accredit graduates from the school. The following day, Nova Scotia's law society's council voted not to accredit the university's graduates unless the school either exempts law students from its covenant or removes the offending passage from the document.

In B.C., the law society voted to accredit the school, though a petition signed by more than a thousand lawyers has prompted a special meeting, scheduled for June 10, to reconsider the approval. Meanwhile, Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby is behind a lawsuit alleging the B.C. government's decision to allow the school to grant degrees was unconstitutional.

Kuhn has travelled the country defending the university and insisting the campus is not a place of intolerance.

"We are discriminating in the sense that we say that one should abstain from sex in any circumstance outside of marriage — so yes, on that basis we discriminate," Kuhn said in the video.

"But sexual intimacy is a question of choice, whether one expresses it or not."

Kuhn said the covenant is enforced through "self accountability" and he said the school doesn't mete out harsh punishments. However, the school's student handbook warns violating any section of the covenant can result in discipline or dismissal from the university.

Rene Gallant, president of the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society, said the society reached its decision after a thorough process, which he believes would be upheld by the courts.

Gallant said the issue is not the religious convictions of the school or its students, but rather the policies of the school.

"We are very supportive of religious freedom and very supportive of lawyers who have faith," he said in an interview.

"What Trinity Western wants to do is ... take religious freedom to the step that turns it into discrimination, and that is not protected by the law."

The Law Society of Upper Canada issued a brief written statement that said it would respond once the university actually files its application for judicial review.

The debate over how to balance Trinity Western's views about homosexuality with the rights of gay and lesbian students may end up at the Supreme Court of Canada, which has previously ruled in the school's favour on the very same issue.

In 2001, the high court overturned a decision by the B.C.'s teachers' college to reject the school's teaching program.

The teachers college attempted to prevent the school from handing out teaching certificates because students were required to sign an agreement not to engage in "biblically condemned" activities, including "homosexual behaviour."

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