Legislation could force Ontario Catholic schools to recognize gay student clubs

Nicole Choi Contributor
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Ontario government officials have committed to a proposal that would expand the Canadian province’s anti-bullying and child protection laws to force schools — including Catholic schools — to recognize “Gay-Straight Alliance” clubs if their students want to start one.

Angry about the potential impact on Catholic educators’ independence, dozens of protesters filled a downtown public square in Toronto on Thursday, calling the move “totalitarian” and “liberty-destroying.”

“This is a reminder to the legislators in the pink palace down the street that we will not allow the rights of responsible, traditional, principled Ontarians to be taken away,” Family Coalition Party leader Phil Lees told CityNews Toronto.

An amendment to the Accepting School Act, known in Ontario as “Bill 13,” would prohibit Catholic schools from vetoing the gay clubs. It would also force them to accept the law’s “particular emphasis” on what it calls “LGBTTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, two-spirited, intersexed, queer and questioning) people.”

Many Catholic schools in Canada already endorse “respecting difference” clubs. Canada’s Catholic School Trustees Association endorsed this solution in January, relying on a loophole that permitted them to give gay students an after-school social option called Gay-Straight Alliances “or another name.”

The new legislative push from Liberal Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty would close that loophole. “We’re saying we’re going to … send a strong signal to all our kids we’re going to respect you for who you are,” McGuinty said Tuesday.

Complicating the issue is the fact that Catholic schools in Canada receive public funds under a subsidy system that the Canadian Constitution guarantees in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

But opponents of religious education are now openly questioning that mandate.

“The real question now is whether Ontario should be required to continue to support Catholic schools. The elephant in the room — public funding of Catholic schools — has become so destructive to fundamental rights and equality it’s impossible to ignore,” Justin Trottier, a spokesman for the Toronto-based Centre for Inquiry, an atheist group, told the National Post in Toronto.

Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten insisted on Wednesday that public funding of Catholic schools is not an issue the provincial government wants to open up for debate. “We are not willing to embark on a conversation with respect to seeing an end to Catholic education, which is constitutionally protected, or French-language education,” she said.

“Our budget anticipates the Catholic system continuing on,” agreed Ontario Finance Minster Dwight Duncan, the Toronto Sun reported. “There are constitutional imperatives that are unique to Ontario. We’re not looking at that right now.”

Catholic leaders in Ontario argued that government intrusion into their beliefs could spread to other faiths.

“If it happens to us, it can happen to you, on this and other issues,” Toronto Archbishop Thomas Cardinal Collins said in a statement. “When religious freedom becomes a second-class right, you also will eventually be affected.”

“Catholic educators should be free to make sure that Catholic schools are loving learning environments in which every person is treated with love and respect,” he added, “and to do so in a way that arises out of our faith tradition and is in harmony with it.”

But the nation’s largest gay-rights group, EGALE Canada, maintains that defending a religious tradition that mutes gay students’ ability to call themselves “gay” is a form of bigotry.

“There is no way to defend that, period,”  EGALE Canada executive director Helen Kennedy told the National Post. “It’s indefensible. It is just plain ignorance.”

Her organization produced a report last year that claimed “20.8 per cent of LGBTQ students indicated being physically harassed due to their sexual orientation, compared to 7.9 per cent of non-LGBTQ participants.”

The larger question of whether lawmakers can legislate a solution to childhood bullying remains unaddressed, at least in North America.

Peter Jon Mitchell, senior researcher at the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, concluded in a May 24 report that every Canadian province already has a law addressing bullying. Ontario alone, he added, spent $150 million on its own “safe school” programs from 2007 to 2010 — without making schools bully-free.

“Bullying is a big problem and Canadians often look to government to solve large challenges,” Mitchell wrote.

“The law may provide a supporting context, but it cannot regulate and repair school yard relationships.

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