Alberta Education Minister Hopeful After Meeting Bishops

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Edmonton’s Archbishop Richard Smith

Alberta’s Education Minister expressed hope that a compromise on LGBTQ policies could be found for Catholic education after meeting with the province’s bishops.

Minister David Eggen met with the four bishops of the Canadian province last Monday to quell the increasingly heated debates around developing policies to support LGBTQ students. He said the conversations were “frank” and sought “common ground” to ensure that “we protect all students regardless of their gender identity in schools and to make sure that everybody is equal under school policy and equal under the law.”

The outcome was, according to Eggen as quoted in the Calgary Sun, that Catholic officials would be given some “latitude” in developing their LGBTQ policies by March 31. He explained:

” ‘It’s latitude to ensure that the integrity and the protections religion is allowed here, both in the province of Alberta and across the country, are adhered to. . .But that protection has never allowed faith-based edicts to compromise the letter of the law.’ “

Moving forward, Eggen hoped that his ministry could collaboratively work with Catholic school boards in Alberta in “looking for a way by which we can accommodate theological beliefs and the letter of the law.”

Education Minister David Eggen

This meeting came after each bishop had released their own sharply-worded letter against newly released LGBTQ guidelines from the Education Ministry. Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary described them as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic” and later refused to apologize for his harsh remarks. Letters from Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan, and Bishop Paul Terrio of St. Paul were critical, but less confrontational.

Archbishop Smith commented on their meeting with Minister Eggen, reported Global News, saying the open conversation was “warm” and “cordial,” and he agreed that a solution was possible because the “fundamental common ground has to do with the love and the protection of the children.”

Minister Eggen’s meeting with Alberta’s bishops appears to be progress towards protecting LGBT students. The harsh rhetoric and hyperbolic acts which have surrounded this debate for months now have only hurt students who may already be marginalized or suffering.

Both Eggen and the Catholic bishops seem interested in helping the province’s Catholic education, which is publicly funded, to become safer and more inclusive for all students. The rub is in the details of what that means, but I hope Alberta’s bishops can come to see that Catholic education is actually strengthened when sexual and gender diverse students are welcomed, supported, and allowed to identify as they know God to have created them.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

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Alberta Bishop Refuses to Apologize for Anti-Trans Letter

>Bishop Fred Henry says the church has a lot to apologize for, but remains a tremendous source of good.
Bishop Fred Henry

The Canadian bishop who referred to LGBTQ education guidelines as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic” is refusing to apologize for his comments or to dialogue about the issue, according to a second letter he released.

Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary issued his latest post, “Totalitarianism in Alberta II,” last week, reported the Edmonton Sun. In it, the bishop wrote:

” ‘If you are reading this piece in the hopes of discovering an apology and/or a retraction, you might as well stop reading right now. That’s simply not going to happen.”

Henry claimed he had received “considerable support” for both the substance and style of his initial letter, and quoted comments from Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si  about gender and used Scripture to defend the idea that he should warn people of wrongdoing.

Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen responded to the letter by reiterating that collaboration and a willingness to put students’ well-being first would facilitate progress when he meets with church leaders in a few weeks. Other responses to Bishop Henry’s repeated attack of the LGBTQ guidelines were less reserved.

Educator and LGBT advocate Brian Hodder again noted how detrimental the Alberta bishops’ resistance to LGBTQ student supports is to actual students.  Writing in The Telegram, he stated:

“As we have found in this province, gay-straight alliances play a critical role in fostering support and understanding for all students. More importantly — as my own experiences in life have taught me — the value of a supportive and equal education system is vital in preventing many of the social difficulties faced by LGBTQ youth as well as others facing any kind of difficulty. Denying them this support is just the wrong thing to do.”

Hodder concluded that it was Bishop Henry, not Alberta’s Education Ministry, “who wishes to forcefully impose” an ideology, and he said that Henry could do so as long as Catholic education was not publicly funded.

Jeremy Klazsus echoed this point in Metro, stating the bishop “makes a better case than anyone that Catholic schools should no longer get full public funding.” The columnist explained further:

“Henry is unelected, and accountable primarily to his church, not the public. Yet he holds significant sway over the publicly funded Calgary Catholic School District as its moral and spiritual leader. . .Given his church’s privileged position, Henry could have responded to the new guidelines in any number of measured ways.”

The bishop’s responses could have included an acknowledgement that Catholics hold diverse views on sexuality or that more consultation with Catholics would be advisable. Instead, Klaszus wrote, Henry “went guns blazing.”

But in The Globe and Mail, University of Alberta law professor Eric Adams cautioned  against setting up the Alberta debate as a battle over religious freedom and human rights, or using the debate to undermine Catholic education. While there are many nuances in Canadian constitutional law and human rights law involved in the controversy, Adams’ broader point about consensus building is worth noting:

“The answer, as is so often the case, is not a battle of constitutional rights, but a co-existence of them. Policies that protect the rights of transgender students to human dignity fall, like other concerns focused on the well-being of students, within the province’s jurisdiction over education. A constitution of pluralism and mutual respect means Catholic schools teaching Catholic values and respecting the choices of transgender students to difference.

“Which rights win? They all do. We do, too.”

As regular readings of Bondings 2.0 will know, the question of LGBTQ policies in Alberta’s Catholic schools, specifically controversies around the Edmonton Catholic School Board, have made headlines almost weekly for awhile now. Each time, conservative church leaders and their allied board members have escalated the stakes with hyperbolic language. Church leaders fight harder and harder against guidelines that would help keep LGBTQ students safe and encourage them to thrive.

For the sake of LGBTQ students, Catholic education, and the wider church in Alberta, this approach to the issue must change. Bishop Henry should apologize for the damage he has caused, and, along with his episcopal peers, find a third way forward with Alberta’s Education Ministry so that Catholic education can thrive even more by its enthusiastic protection and embrace of LGBTQ students.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Alberta’s Catholic Laity Supports GSAs; Alberta’s Catholic Bishops Do Not

A controversy over a gay-straight alliance (GSA) bill in the legislative assembly of the Canadian province of Alberta has become a classic example of how Catholic leaders and lay people take different approaches to LGBT issues.

Students demonstrate in support of GSAs.

According to CBC.ca, Bill 10 was introduced by the province’s conservative political party “to counter a private member’s bill making gay-straight alliances mandatory in all schools.”

CTVNews.ca provided a succinct history of the complicated progress of the bill:

“In its original form, Bill 10 gave the final say for GSAs to the school boards and told students to go to court if they wanted to challenge it. [Alberta Premier Jim] Prentice said this was the best way to balance the rights of kids, schools and parents.

“When public outrage grew on social media and elsewhere, the Tories on Wednesday passed an amendment allowing the government to set up GSAs at unwilling schools, but with the option of putting the clubs off school grounds.

“Critics pounced on the amendment as institutionalized segregation of gays akin to ‘separate but equal’ Jim Crow laws used to debase African-Americans more than a generation ago.”

As a result of the political controversy the bill has been placed on hold by the Premier of the province to allow for further discussion and debate.

Alberta’s two largest cities, Edmonton and Calgary, already have 94 GSAs in schools, but the province has none in rural areas or in faith-based schools.  In Canada, Catholic schools receive state funding, and so are affected by state education laws, though they are governed by local Catholic boards of trustees.

Tony Sykora

The local Catholic trustees seem to be split about Bill 10.  The Edmonton Journal  cited one trustee’s opinion:

“Tony Sykora, president of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association, said Catholic school boards provide a wide array of other initiatives and organizations to live up to the Education Act’s mandate to protect all students and believe the decision on gay-straight alliances should be left up to local trustees.”

But when the province’s Catholic school boards agreed to hold off on encouraging GSAs, some trustees and parents became angry. MetroNews.ca reported on the reaction of  one of Edmonton Catholic Schools (ECS) trustees to the idea that “inclusive clubs” be instituted instead of GSAs:

Patricia Grell

“. . . [A]ccording to ECS trustee Patricia Grell, that’s not fair to the district’s LGBTQ students. . . .

“ ‘Appalled was the word that the majority of people used as a description,’ said Grell, referencing the reaction from the community about comments made by ECS board chair Debbie Engel to media about GSAs.

“Grell, who recently penned a blog post about the clubs, said the district needs to reconsider their stance on GSAs to consider what’s best for vulnerable students.

“ ‘I… learned that they are not sex groups or dating clubs but “identity clubs” for students who identify as LGBTQ and their straight friends,’ Grell wrote on her website.”

The two leading Catholic prelates of Alberta have weighed in on the bill, in separate letters, though both encouraged support of the measure.  The bishops express concern for LGBT students, but oppose the idea of GSAs as the way to support youth. Calgary’s Bishop Fred Henry stated:

“It enshrined parental rights, recognized the autonomy of local school boards and the students rights regarding diversity clubs without mandating Gay-Straight Alliances.”

Edmonton’s Archbishop Richard Smith provided a similar message:

“We fully support the government’s laudable goal of fostering safe environments in schools. In fact, we already have policies for this very purpose. Any legislation aimed at this objective should demonstrate to all vulnerable students that they are embraced by the province’s concern.”

(You can read the full texts of the bishops’ letters by clicking here and scrolling to the end of the article.)

Yet, a recent poll of Alberta’s Catholics shows that lay people significantly disagree with the bishops’ position.  The Edmonton Journal reported:

“. . . [T]he University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minorities Studies and Services released data from a Leger Marketing poll showing more than half of Alberta Catholics support allowing the alliances in schools.

“The online survey of 1,002 Albertans, conducted last week, found 18 per cent of Catholics were strongly opposed or opposed. Fifty-two per cent were in support or strongly in support. The poll numbers are considered accurate to within 6.5 percentage points 19 times out of 20.”

And one Catholic priest has spoken out against the bishops’ position, too. GlobalNews.ca reported:

“Calgary Reverend John Pentland said on Sunday that Bishop Henry’s comments are not helpful to Catholics who support GSAs and object to Bill 10.

“ ‘I’m sure it’s confusing for people, for friends, and our Catholic faith to have their leader say such a thing. I hope they use their own mind and conscience and let their [political representatives] know.’ ”

Marni Panas

In the same article, Marni Panas, a transgender Catholic woman in Edmonton, was also quoted opposing the bishops’ stand:

“I’ve come to believe that when left to the people of my church, the ‘average’ Catholics, the true teachings of my faith will prevail.

“We do not need the ‘permission’ of certain leaders to be kind, welcoming, compassionate and loving.”

While this controversy still is not finished, there is already one “casualty” of the debate.  The Edmonton Journal followed up with Trustee Grell, quoted above, about her support for GSAs.  The article reported a new development:

“On Monday, she said she no longer wanted to speak publicly on the issue, worried about breaking rank with the archbishop. ‘I promised the archbishop I wouldn’t do this anymore,’ she said, citing canon law that gives him the authority to grant an educational institute the right to call themselves Catholic.”

Bondings 2.0 will keep you informed on further developments in this story.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles:

Edmonton Journal: “Bill 10 ‘supports homophobia’ says former Catholic high school student”

CBC.ca: “Amended Bill 10 could push GSAs off school grounds: opposition”

CBC.ca: “Gay-straight alliance bill put on hold, says Alberta Premier Jim Prentice”

Times Colonist: “Alberta amends bill, opens door to segregation of gay youth clubs”