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Law society must act in public interest

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The Law Society of Manitoba should take a stand in support of equality and refuse to recognize degrees granted by B.C.'s Trinity Western University for the purposes of admission to the practice of law in Manitoba.

Some have criticized this position as being discriminatory against religious beliefs, but that is not the case. The real concern is that if law societies do not distance themselves from the practices of Trinity Western, then they are aiding in the creation of a discriminatory barrier to prevent access to a particular realm of work for a specific segment of our society -- the LGBT community.

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The legal profession only accepts a finite number of new members each year, and without assurances that these coveted law-school spots are available to all Canadians, this is incompatible with human rights, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canadian values more broadly.

As a lawyer who also happens to be part of the LGBT community, I find it repugnant that TWU requires its faculty, staff and students to sign a Community Covenant Agreement promising not to engage in same-sex sexual intimacy under any circumstances. What we do or don't do in the privacy of our own bedrooms should be of no concern to administrators making decisions about who gets to attend law school and become a lawyer and who doesn't.

This covenant cites biblical passages condemning homosexuality. The prospect of a regulator of the legal profession offering approval/accreditation to a law school with such an explicitly discriminatory policy is disturbing to say the least. If any of Canada's public universities adopted the kind of covenant TWU requires, they would be in violation of the human rights legislation in their respective provinces.

In 2014, a reasonable balance between freedom of religion and equality for gays and lesbians requires law societies to reject law-degree programs that explicitly discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Nova Scotia's law society took a balanced approach recently when they voted to approve accreditation of TWU's law school, but only if they eliminated the discriminatory part of the covenant prohibiting same-sex sexual intimacy.

In the context of scarce law-school positions for access to the profession, TWU's proposed law school would create a discriminatory quota for access to the profession in Manitoba. It is the reduction in the relative, as opposed to the absolute, number of opportunities for gay and lesbian persons that makes approval of TWU's law school objectionable. In my view, it cannot be in the public interest for the law society to contribute to this kind of labour-market discrimination.

At its most basic, the issue facing the law society is very simple: Is it in the public interest for the legal profession to express approval of an educational institution that explicitly employs policies that discriminate against gays and lesbians? The law society would surely not see fit to approve a law school with a policy that prohibits students from forming intimate relationships with a member of a different racial or ethnic group, or one that proposed to restrict legal education to men because of religious rules.

Discrimination that further vilifies marginalized groups cannot be in the public interest members of the legal profession have committed to serve.

Kristine Barr is a local lawyer with CUPE, a Winnipeg school board trustee and co-chairwoman of the sexual-orientation and gender-identity conference of the Manitoba Bar Association.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2014 A9

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