Counting the Educational Costs of LGBT-Negative Acts

Transgendered Teacher Fired 20110410
Jan Buterman

When a Catholic institution expels an employee in an LGBT dispute or refuses to support LGBT students, there often seems to be little consideration about the consequences. Two incidents in Alberta, Canada spotlight some costs to church institutions which LGBT-negative actions and policies can entail.

Legal Costs at $367,188 and Rising

Newly-released documents reveal that the Greater St. Albert Catholic School District has spent at least $367,188 defending its firing of transgender teacher Jan Buterman. Actual costs to the district may be higher as the documents only cover the years 2009-2013, but the legal battle is ongoing.

Fired after he transitioned in 2008, Buterman filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission the following year, and has fought for justice since then. Buterman explained to the Edmonton Journal that having these documents made public is important for fiscal transparency and accountability. Institutions which act inappropriately should not, in the legal process, be allowed to “acquire the right to silence anyone from mentioning it ever again.” Buterman said, too, that most people would not consider these high legal costs as “a totally typical expense for a school board.”

Duncan Kinney, executive director of Progress Alberta which obtained the documents through a public records request, called the school’s legal defense “a waste of taxpayers’ money” [Editor’s Note:  Catholic schools in Canada receive government funding.] Kinney continued:

” ‘We think taxpayers should know how much this 100-per-cent publicly funded school board is spending on a legal case to determine whether they can fire someone for being transgender. . .This is cash that could have gone to teachers and students.’ “

Kristopher Wells, director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, said the district’s legal costs are a “shocking misuse of funds.” According to the St. Albert GazetteWells questioned this spending:

” ‘How can they possibly justify diverting that money out of the classroom to fund what many people feel is a discriminatory act? . . .Why won’t they allow a transgender teacher to teach in St. Albert schools?’ “

Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools is refusing to comment. Buterman is committed to keep fighting, knowing he is not the only transgender person unjustly fired in Alberta but that not all have the means to challenge such actions.

Church Workers’ Confidence Plunging

In another story, a new survey reported by the Edmonton Journal found that just 60% of employees who work for the Edmonton Catholic Schools Board have confidence in the performance of board trustees and Superintendent Joan Carr.

Employees’ confidence dropped 25% since the 2014 survey, likely attributed to the Board’s treatment of LGBT issues, such as a refusal to adopt transgender supportive policies and a reluctance to accept LGBT student groups. The Board’s October 2015 meeting erupted into a “shouting match” and in December trustees approved a draft policy which would allow “just discrimination” towards some youth. An LGBTQ policy finally approved this spring is currently under review by the Alberta Ministry of Education.

Greg Carabine, union president of Edmonton Catholic Teachers Local 54, said teachers are being asked about this embarrassing situation. He added that the Board’s public disputes “makes it harder for all of us” and imperils student safety.

Board trustees downplayed the survey’s findings in their latest meeting. Chair Marilyn Bergstra said employees have understood the issues “solely through the media,” and trustees should find a way to engage employees directly to help raise confidence.

Counting the Costs

These two incidents reveal a larger truth about the steep costs which LGBT-negative approaches inflict on Catholic education. Acknowledging these costs is not diverting attention from the harm done to fired church workers and their families or to LGBTQ youth who suffer at non-affirming Catholic schools; it only adds to that harm.

First, school officials’ decisions to defend discrimination in costly legal fights steals already limited funds from the students who should be receiving them. In Alberta, there are specific questions about what public funding of religious education should mean. Canadian taxpayers don’t seem to be in agreement that they should fund discrimination against transgender educators.

Even in locations where Catholic education is privately funded, such as in the U.S., parents, alumni, and local communities should similarly question school officials’ priorities in firing decisions.

Second,  resistance to LGBT-supportive policies–whether it is school boards or bishops or educators themselves– undercuts the mission of Catholic education. Institutions claim such actions are about advancing Catholic identity, but the opposite is true. Church workers’ gifts are lost, and performance may suffer from those workers who remain. Time and again, when Catholic institutions act unjustly on LGBT matters, the communities react swiftly and critically. Unjust actions also put LGBTQ youth at greater risk. Opportunities to proclaim the Good News are severely limited, weakened by charges of hypocrisy. Pain and fallout abound.

With nearly $400,000 spent on a single church firing alone and church worker confidence plummeting, Alberta’s Catholic school officials should ponder whether their fight against LGBT equality is really righteous and really worth the costs. These incidents in Alberta should cause Catholic officials everywhere else to reflect similarly.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

School Board Passes “Practically Meaningless” Transgender Policy Ahead of Deadline

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The Edmonton Catholic Schools office building.

Ahead of a March 31st deadline, the Edmonton Catholic School Board (ECSB) passed a policy on transgender students. But many LGBT advocates are disappointed with last Tuesday’s vote, saying the new policy is insufficient and even meaningless.

Trustees approved the policy in a 5-2 vote, reported Global News. It states that, because “all children are unique, loved by God and created in God’s image,” discrimination should not exist in district schools. The policy does not, however, mention LGBTQ students specifically or support gay-straight alliances, omissions which weaken the policy, say critics.

Marni Panas, the transgender mother of a Catholic school student, criticized the policy as “fine” for other contexts, but insufficient for Edmonton’s Catholic schools:

” ‘I mean 15 months ago, we started this conversation with a policy like that already in place and a child was still discriminated against – this policy doesn’t change that, that could still happen.’ “

The mother of the trans girl whose discriminatory treatment prompted Edmonton Catholic schools’ debate on trans students described the situation as “farther behind” than when it began fifteen months ago. (The mother chooses to be unidentified to protect her daughter.) She told Metro News that Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen should reject the new policy, as it shows “a complete lack of effort” and “protects nobody.”

Kris Wells of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services said the policy approved is “the worst” of three proposed thus far because “it almost means nothing,” reported the Edmonton Journal. He continued in Metro News:

” ‘It’s so generic that it is practically meaningless. . .These kinds of generic policies don’t work when it comes to supporting vulnerable LGBTQ youth.’ “

ECSB chair Marilyn Bergstra and trustee Patricia Grell, the two votes against the new policy, explained their opposition to CBC

“[Grell,] who first spoke out about the issue last spring, voted against the policy and called it too general and too generic to be of much help to LGBTQ students.

“[Bergstra] also voted against the policy. She spoke about the pervasive ‘myth, fear and a general lack of understanding’ that continues to hamper efforts to embrace LGBTQ students.”

The Edmonton Catholic School Board’s actions around a transgender policy have repeatedly made headlines. Their meetings erupted into a “shouting match” last fall and the Board approved “just discrimination” of some youth in a draft policy last December. Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary described recent guidelines from the Education Ministry to help develop these LGBTQ policies 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 too, but less confrontational.

In related news, the Catholic Board of Education in Medicine Hat, Alberta, approved first and second readings of policy updates to protect LGBTQ students that will hopefully be approved in a third reading later this month. The policy updates, which are inclusive of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, are intended to meet provincial guidelines released in January, according to Medicine Hat News.

School districts in Alberta, including Catholic ones (because they are publicly funded), are required to submit LGBTQ policies to the Education Ministry by March 31 for review. There are 24 Catholic school boards in Alberta, including Edmonton and Medicine Hat. Education Minister David Eggen declined to comment about how he would handle school boards in Alberta whose LGBTQ policies fail to meet legal norms. Metro News reported that Eggen said he would evaluate all policies and regulations “in their totality” once they had been submitted.

Generic and meaningless policies may not be approved by Alberta’s Education Ministry, setting up more months of conflict and potential harm to students in the province’s Catholic schools. With just two weeks left before policies need to be submitted, there is enough time for Catholic educators and school officials to prioritize students’ well being over anti-LGBTQ ideologies.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

Alberta Bishop Calls New LGBTQ Guidelines “Totalitarian” and “Anti-Catholic”

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Education Minister David Eggen announcing the new guidelines

In Canada, new guidelines from the province of Alberta’s Education Ministry may push transgender policies under development in a positive direction. However, according to one bishop, the guidelines are “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic,” though other Catholics involved in provincial educational systems say the new recommendations are good news.

Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary attacked the guidelines in a blog post titled “Totalitarianism in Alberta,” reported CBC. He wrote, in part:

“This approach and directive smack of the madness of relativism and the forceful imposition of a particular narrow-minded anti-Catholic ideology. . .Such a totalitarian approach is not in accordance with [Canadian law] and must be rejected.”

Henry also said the guidelines “breathe pure secularism” and described gay-straight alliances as “highly politicized ideological clubs” because they oppose homophobia and heterosexism–two influences which he belittled. Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen responded to the comments by saying he would meet with Catholic education officials,, and he was certain that the guidelines offered “a constructive process that will lead to a positive outcome in the end.”

Kris Wells, director of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services had a sharper critique, calling for the bishop to apologize. Wells said:

” ‘The only madness that Bishop Henry describes is his lunacy. . .What the bishop fails to realize is that this kind of harmful rhetoric does great damage to LGBT youth and individuals in our province.”

Mickey Wilson of Edmonton’s Pride Centre said most Catholics want their church “to move past these things,” reported The Edmonton Journal.   He also stated:

” ‘It’s just shameful that he would put students in a position where they have to chose between being schooled in their faith and having a safe place.’ “

Chair Marilyn Bergstra of the Edmonton Catholic Schools Board (ECSB) was among those Catholics who viewed the guidelines differently. She was “very impressed” by them, according to The Edmonton Sun. Bergstra, who began chairing ECSB last October, said further:

” ‘My wish would be that every single word in that document is adopted. . .But that’s not how democracy works, and we have to have a fulsome discussion.’ “

The guidelines in dispute suggested that school districts’ policies respect students’ gender identity and expression, specifically when it comes to dress codes, restrooms, and athletics. Non-discrimination protections for all LGBTQ employees are also suggested.Though not binding, the guidelines come from the Ministry which will be reviewing board policies once they are submitted in March. Catholic schools in Canada receive government funding, so they are not exempt from LGBT protections. You can read the guidelines by clicking here.

ECSB’s discussions about a policy for trans students have been particularly heated. The Board approved a draft policy in December which would allow “just discrimination” of LGBT youth. Previous meetings became shouting matches such that Minister Eggen mandated professional mediation. Trustee Larry Kowalczyk is on record saying trans people have a “mental disorder” and this whole initiative is due to “God-hating activists.”

Despite the new guidelines, approving a policy which actually protects trans students at Edmonton’s Catholic schools may be a challenge. But the guidelines would be immense progress if ECSB members integrate them into any new policy, a reality highlighted by transgender parent Marni Panas who told CBC:

” ‘These are words in a document and they’re really solid words, they’re really good words, but they will mean nothing unless we see action and we see these students protected.’ “

Protecting students should be a first priority of Catholic education, but somehow not all Catholics believe these protections should be afforded to transgender students. Rather than rejecting these guidelines outright (or going so far as calling them “totalitarian”), ECSB and all Catholic trustees should carefully read them and come to understand there is little, if nothing at all, in them which contradicts Catholic teachings. Indeed, they affirm the fundamental call of the Gospel to care about and provide for each person’s well-being, as well as the common good of all people.

With just over two months until a policy is due, Catholic officials in Alberta should put the harsh rhetoric aside.  Instead, they should be open to the guidelines and to new understandings of LGBT people..

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Catholic School Board Calls For “Just” Discrimination of Transgender Students

View of Edmonton Catholic School Board’s December meeting

Trustees on the Edmonton Catholic School Board (ECSB) debated the finer points of discrimination in late November, and they approved a second reading of a draft policy on transgender students that now implicitly allows “just” discrimination for their school system, which is located in the Canadian province of Alberta.

The draft policy changed between a first reading approved in November and the second reading last week, reported the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:

“On first reading, the draft policy included the sentence: ‘All members of the school community have the right to an environment free of discrimination, prejudice and harassment.’

“But on second reading Tuesday evening, that sentence was altered to add the word ‘unjust’ before the word ‘discrimination.’ “

According to trustee Cindy Olsen, the edit differentiates between just and unjust discrimination. Wording which includes “unjust discrimination” was in the second reading approved in a 5-2 vote. A third reading is required for final approval after being reviewed for legal compliance by Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen.

Not all involved in the process believe discrimination should be parsed in the policy. Two trustees, Marilyn Bergstra and Patricia Grell, voted against the new wording. Bergstra, who excused herself as chair so she could speak candidly, said the policy must be “black and white” so as to clearly articulate “what is expected.” Grell, who sponsored the policy, explained further:

” ‘It’s almost like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is what is unjust sort in the eye of whoever is deciding what is unjust? It seems to be open to interpretation.’ “

Marni Panas, a transgender parent in Edmonton Catholic schools, asked who decides what is considered just discrimination. She told the Edmonton Journal that, after eleven months, “we’re not further ahead.”

Kristopher Wells of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies said the policy is essentially meaningless. What is needed are “specific, comprehensive and stand-alone policies [that] are targeted interventions” supporting LGBTQ students.

A September meeting on the draft policy devolved into a “shouting match.” Trustee Larry Kowalczyk has said trans* people have a “mental disorder” and the policy is backed by “God-hating activists.” Minister Eggen mandated professional mediation lasting two weeks after this meeting.

Debates by Edmonton Catholic officials mirror emerging debates in the wider Alberta School Board Association, though perhaps less intensely.  At its fall meeting, he Association failed to achieve a 2/3rds vote to allow discussion of transgender policies. Interestingly, the Catholic School Board  voted in favor of the discussion which Bergstra called “emergent.”

Minister Eggen has since mandated that all Alberta school boards, including the the Edmonton Catholic School Board, must develop policies supporting LGBT students by the end of March 2016. In this case, ECSB chair Marilyn Bergstra says her board hs a “head start” and could assist other boards just beginning the process of creating transgender polices.

ECSB’s “head start” did not come as a result to any trustee’s initiative, but because they were faced with the the incident of a 7-year-old girl being barred from the girls’ bathroom at her Catholic primary school.  The proposed policy is intended to protect transgender and gender non-conforming students, but by allowing “just” discrimination it may only increase the already exorbitant risks trans youth face.

Catholic education, whose mandate comes from the Gospel, has a duty to ensure all students flourish by providing high quality education in safe and respectful environments. As it is written now, ECSB’s policy will not move their schools towards this end for trans students or their family, friends, and educators. Catholic officials attempt to differentiate “just” and “unjust” discrimination is not a new tactic, but it remains a failed and dangerous one.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry