Reasonable Doubt: Inside the lawyers’ vote on Trinity Western University

Trinity Western University is at the centre of controversy over its planned law school. Kevin Yee gives a behind the scenes look at the crucial vote within the BC Law Society.

June 10—I am eating dinner at my office computer and reflecting on the events of this afternoon. Today, I attended the Law Society of British Columbia’s meeting of its members. This was held in over a dozen locations across the province. Over 1,200 lawyers gathered. Roughly half of that, along with members of the media and the public, sat in the same room as me in downtown Vancouver.

This meeting was to vote on the issue of accreditation of Trinity Western University’s proposed law school. Earlier this year, the benchers (i.e. governors) of the Law Society voted in favour of accreditation. Our column expressed our opposition in May. I followed up with a perspective on the Law Society’s role. Today’s meeting was called by a petition of the members. It was to come together and vote on a resolution directing the benchers to reverse their previous decision. If passed, the resolution would not bind the benchers but send a powerful message directly from the Law Society’s constituents.

The meeting consisted of an open-floor discussion. However, I suspect that most lawyers, like me, arrived with their minds already made up. That said, it was quite something to hear the various viewpoints of fellow members of the bar.

I would like to impart an image that has stuck with me all day. There were two microphones on the floor of the Vancouver meeting. One was for Law Society members who support revoking TWU accreditation. The other was for those who support TWU accreditation. From where I sat at the very edge of the room, I saw lawyers line up behind their microphone of choice within moments of opening the floor. One by one, individual speakers made their arguments. And one by one, over the course of two hours, I heard impassioned speeches from both sides of the issue.

These speeches brought various angles of the controversy to light. Members urged us to protect the interest of the TWU law students (who remain only potential for now, since the school has not opened yet). In contrast, others reminded us of the long-standing discrimination faced by the LGBT community and how our mandate to the greater public required denouncing TWU’s institutional prejudices.

Both sides also drew from principle and law. Some felt the Law Society was required to support TWU to be consistent with the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2001 decision in Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers. Others saw that case as not binding, not relevant, and not justification to stay quiet on the issue. The underlying principles of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the B.C. Human Rights Code were raised.

I was struck by how respectful the discourse was. There was a real exchange of opinions that did not come at the expense of any one side’s arguments. I was impressed by the sense of conviction and courage shown. In recognition of speakers for both sides, members broke into applause (and in one case a standing ovation) throughout the afternoon. It would be overly simplistic to cast this issue as one of religious freedoms versus LGBT rights. That was clear to me. Both sides purported to speak out against discrimination: institutional discrimination against LGBT individuals on one hand and individuals who share TWU’s beliefs and values on the other. Both sides purport to champion the ideals of a diverse and inclusive society.

After two hours, a motion was made to start the vote. My position on this issue may not have changed today but I believe my eyes were opened a little more. I left the meeting with a stronger opinion but a greater respect for the opposing views.

Perhaps this goes without saying but it’s something I had to remind myself on my walk back. You can feel passionate about an issue and see a clear answer. But just because it’s clear to you doesn’t make it clear to others. You may have a strong opinion, but there can be an opinion just as strong on the other side. This begs real consideration of any opposing viewpoint on any issue as controversial as this. The only way that can be done is a respectful and open exchange of perspectives.

I had one other thought that I couldn’t shake as I walked back to my office after the meeting—what now? This dispute seems destined to go through all levels of court in lawsuits by TWU and students. And I don’t say this with a sense of dread or disappointment. On the contrary, this is an important issue that needs to be addressed by the courts. It might be years for this to get any closure. In the meantime, as one speaker poignantly asked, on which side of the courtroom will you stand?

And in case you haven’t heard by now, the resolution passed. The Law Society voted in favour of this message to the benchers: revoke the TWU accreditation.

The vote was 3,210 to 968.

A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.

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