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B.C. university responds on same-sex policy

B.C. university responds on same-sex policyRene Gallant, president of the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society, sits with executive committee members in Halifax on Feb. 12, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX - Excluding law school graduates from working in Nova Scotia because they attended a university that prohibits same-sex intimacy would be discriminatory, the university's president told the province's bar society Tuesday.

Bob Kuhn, president of Trinity Western University, told the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society in Halifax it would be unfair if it did not recognize law school degrees from his school because of its community covenant that requires students, faculty and staff to respect Christian values.

"That's an audacious example of prejudice," Kuhn told the panel in his two-hour submission.

The faith-based university in Langley, B.C., wants to open a law school in 2016, and a society panel is holding hearings to determine whether it should allow its graduates to article, and potentially practise, in Nova Scotia.

The university, which bills itself as the largest, independent Christian liberal arts institution in Canada, asks its 3,600 students to sign a community covenant. Among its core values, the covenant states that sexual intimacy be "reserved for marriage between one man and one woman."

Kuhn began his remarks by saying he is a practising Christian and has been a lawyer for more than three decades. The Trinity Western alumnus encouraged the panel to proceed "as lawyers, and not as personal representatives of any ideological viewpoints."

The school's policy prohibiting same-sex intimacy has sparked controversy, but Kuhn said he finds any suggestion that religious beliefs would prevent students from acting professionally and ethically in their duties as lawyers offensive.

He also said the matter raises the larger question of whether there is still meaningful freedom of religion in Canada.

"Thirty-five years, I've been practising law," Kuhn told reporters following his remarks. "I signed that covenant very easily because that's what I believe, but it doesn't eliminate my ability to perform my legal practice for any number of clients, some of whom are members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community."

Kuhn said the society doesn't have to endorse or agree with Trinity Western's covenant, but should "tolerate" it, adding that the school has a record of academic excellence and has done nothing to deserve the treatment it has received.

Last month, the society heard from lawyers, legal experts and others, most of whom urged it to deny accreditation to the school because they say their position on same-sex intimacy is discriminatory.

In December, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada gave Trinity Western University preliminary approval for its law school program and said it was up to provincial law societies to decide whether to recognize degrees from the school.

The Nova Scotia Barristers' Society is the first legal group in the country to hold such a forum. The society's executive committee will have a report and recommendation for its council to consider on April 25.

Society president Rene Gallant said the scope of the decision is still unknown. He said the immediate question is whether Trinity Western graduates should be able to article in Nova Scotia, but he said it could also affect whether they can practise law in the province down the road.

Gallant said the society's decision will ultimately try to strike a balance between freedom of religion and freedom of equality.

"Lawyers in Nova Scotia have to abide by a code of ethical conduct and that their behaviour, their engagement with their clients has to be at the highest measure in accordance with those ethical codes," he said. "Lawyers can have all kinds of beliefs, personal beliefs. It's how they treat their clients that has to follow the code of conduct."

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