Case of Fired Transgender Teacher Comes to Unsatisfactory Decision

For nine years, Jan Buterman has been seeking justice in Canadian courts, after he was fired as a substitute teacher in a Catholic school district because he chose to transition from male to female.  A recent court decision seems to indicate that justice will not be served.

The transgender man was fired in 2009 from  the Greater St. Albert Catholic School District, Edmonton, Alberta.   Since that time there has been negotiations with the district’s administration, and several motions in court, but according to CBC-Radio Canada, a recent decision by a judge seems to have brought a close to the case, though no decision on the substance of the situation was reached.

Jan Buterman

The news outlet reported that the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that Buterman had given up the right to bring his case to the provincial human rights commission because supposedly a few years ago he reached a financial settlement with the school district.  Buterman contends, however, that he did not accept the settlement.  The news report gave a synopsis of events:

“In October 2008, Buterman was removed from the board’s roster of substitute teachers after he notified them he was a transgender person in the process of transitioning from female to male.

” ‘Since you have made a personal choice to change your gender, which is contrary to Catholic teachings, we have had no choice but to remove you from the substitute teaching list,’ the board wrote at the time.

“A year later, Buterman filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

“The next day, the board offered him $78,000 if he’d agree to withdraw his complaint. The board asked him to promise not to make any further complaints to the human rights commission and agree to keep the deal confidential.

“Buterman rejected the offer.

“In Sept. 2010, the board made a different offer to Buterman. That offer was also rejected, but Buterman’s lawyer replied in writing that his client was willing to accept the original offer.

“The same day, the board confirmed the original offer still stood, and the two parties went back and forth about making minor changes to the wording.

“In January 2011, Buterman’s lawyer returned the money and the unsigned settlement documents, noting it had taken longer than expected to consider and discuss the issues with his client. By April 2011, Buterman was without a lawyer, so the board sent the draft documents directly to him.

“Buterman never responded directly to the board. Instead he told the media he had rejected the board’s settlement offer due to the confidentiality clause.

“More than three years passed. Then the school board applied to the human rights commission to determine if it still had jurisdiction to hear Buterman’s complaint. The board argued the parties had entered into a settlement agreement.

“After a three-day hearing on that point, the commission determined it had no remaining jurisdiction over the complaint because a deal had been reached and Buterman ‘had relinquished his human rights complaint in favour of a settlement.’ “

Buterman is disappointed in the decision, especially since none of the substantive issues of the case were discussed, and the court’s ruling hinged on procedural topics.  Buterman stated:

“It is surprising, I think, to many that this has been kind of all on procedural side issues. But those side issues are more than enough to derail the ability to actually interrogate the question of whether or not someone has the right to be fired for being trans.”

He and his lawyers have not decided what their next move is.

Buterman’s case highlights the fact that true justice in cases like his won’t come from law courts but from church officials acting justly.  At the very least, they can act in an informed manner. For instance, there is no church doctrine prohibiting gender surgery, as they claimed when they fired Buterman.

The Sisters of Mercy were able to retain a transitioned transgender teacher (and a full-time one, not a substitute) last year at one of their schools in San Francisco.  Justice was served in that case.  Other church leaders should follow their example.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, July 6, 2017

 

 

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Students Protest Catholic School’s Decision to Remove Rainbow Flag

Controversy over LGBT issues in one of Canada’s Catholic school systems has once again made headlines, resulting in unfortunate harm during Pride celebrations.

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Students protesting at Blessed Oscar Romero High School

To mark Pride, students at Blessed Oscar Romero High School in Edmonton, Alberta, hung a rainbow flag in the school with some additional rainbow decorations. The next day, students drew a rainbow flag in chalk at the school’s entrance. CBC reported what happened next:

 

“On Tuesday morning, student president-elect Francis Nievera was called into the principal’s office. He said he was told all the decorations must come down because the chalk was being tracked inside, which he said was understandable. But those weren’t the only reasons.

“‘They said putting up flags was a political statement and it made some people uncomfortable and we need to make everyone feel comfortable,’ said Nievera, an openly transsexual and transgender Grade 10 student. ‘To have it all torn down in less than a day kind of sucked.'”

Lori Nagy of the Edmonton Catholic School Board denied claims the decorations were authorized, and said the school’s principal was willing to support other pride celebrations. Nonetheless, Nievera’s invitation, students protested, according to the CBC: 

“Prior to the protest, a video shows an emotional Nievera, near a handful of supporters including the school mascot, address students from the stage in the school cafeteria.

“‘We have to take down all the decorations today,’ he said, setting off boos from the crowd. ‘But I just want to say because of this I really don’t feel safe.'”

“‘If you guys want to help support pride week, even though all of this will be taken down, feel free to come outside and protest.'”

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The chalk rainbow flag in dispute at Blessed Oscar Romero High School

Students gathered at the chalk rainbow flag as other students used power washers to remove it. According to the CBC, “More than 30 students refused to return to class.”

Kennedy Harper, who helped organize the school’s Pride celebrations, said administrators threatened protesting students with suspension. She commented further:

“‘It seems like along with the chalk they were just washing away their identity. . .It felt really good for a little while, seeing the school really come together and standing up for the rights of minorities whether they’re part of the LGBTQ community or not.'”

Shortly after all the decorations had been removed , school administrators then said that the flags would be allowed for the remainder of the week.

This is hardly the first time Edmonton’s Catholic school system has been roiled in LGBT-related controversies. A student at the neighboring St. Joseph Catholic High School was also asked to remove a rainbow flag he wore during a school ceremony. The Edmonton Catholic School Board’s actions in 2015 around a transgender policy saw meetings erupt into a “shouting match” as the Board approved a draft policy allowing  “just discrimination” of some youth. Elsewhere in Alberta, a former bishop referred to LGBTQ policies being implemented in Catholic schools “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic.”

The situation at Blessed Oscar Romero adds to this list of avoidable, damaging incidents where LGBTQ students are made to feel less than comfortable and even unsafe in Catholic education. No harm was caused by allowing some minor Pride decorations to be displayed, but much harm was done by power washing them and ripping them away.

Once again, it is young students in Catholic schools who are the ones leading our church to be more just and inclusive for LGBT people. And of these students’ commitment to justice for all people, Monseñor Romero would likely be very proud.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, June 19, 2017

 

 

Alberta’s Catholic Schools Receive Poor Grades on LGBT Policies

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Results from “Making the Grade” report

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 18, 2016

Catholic school districts in Alberta received poor grades for their LGBT policies, according to a new report from the organization “Public Interest Alberta.”

Professor Kristopher Wells authored the report, “Making the Grade,” after conducting an analysis of the LGBT policies for four school districts. Wells, who directs the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, studied the Grand Prairie Catholic Schools and the Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools as part of the report. The Edmonton Journal reported further:

“Wells evaluated four policies based on six criteria, including whether it complied with provincial legislation, protected students and staff members’ privacy, and spelled out how schools will support transgender and non-binary people.

“He said shortcomings include apparent restrictions on requesting gay-straight alliances in some Catholic school districts. Grande Prairie and St. Albert Catholic districts both have policies saying the groups will ‘normally’ be established at the Grade 7-to-12 levels, that the principal has to agree to the club’s name, and must approve any material going before the group.

“The report also said some districts did not include protections for students’ families or staff who are gender diverse, and failed to spell out how transgender people will be directed to bathrooms or change rooms, and join sports teams.”

Both Catholic districts received a D, but have pushed back against Wells’ report. Karl Germann, superintendent of Grand Prairie Catholic Schools, said the provincial Ministry of Education had approved its policies on inclusion. Germann said students are “loved and cared for,” in addition to legal compliance. David Keohane, superintendent of Greater St. Alberta Catholic School District, claimed the report was incomplete.

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Professor Kristopher Wells

Wells criticized the lack of a unified policy in the province, which makes finding and understanding a given district’s policies on gender and sexuality confusing. He told the Edmonton Journal:

” ‘Unequivocally, any student who walks through any school in this province should be entitled to the same supports, the same resources, the same protections regardless of where they go to school.’ “

Joel French, executive director of Public Interest Alberta, suggested the Ministry of Education post every district’s policies in a central and accessible place.Every school system in Alberta had to submit their LGBT policies for review last March. Thus far, the Ministry and Minister David Eggen have not released which districts have LGBT policies which are legally compliant and which are insufficient.

In related news, the leader of Alberta’s Liberal Party, David Swann, has said school districts which do not meet new LGBTQ standards should potentially have their funding and charters withdrawn. He told CBC:

” ‘The legislation, supported by every provincial party, and the policies set forth by the government, were created to provide kids with the right to be who they are. . .No organization, especially a school, should have the ability to take those rights away.’ “

Swann also said reparative therapy should be banned. His comments come after a Baptist leader said LGBTQ policies should and would be refused as they violate religious freedom.

Disputes about implementing policies supportive of LGBTQ students in Alberta have been ongoing for two years now. All 61 districts in the province submitted draft policies last March, but preceding these submissions there were debates in several Catholic systems. Particularly intense were disputes among the Edmonton Catholic School Board, whose meetings erupted in shouting and eventually necessitated outside mediation.

Alberta’s bishops weighed in, too, with one describing the LGBT guidelines as “totalitarian,” though the bishops eventually met with Minister Eggen. It should also be noted that the Greater St. Albert Catholic School District has spent nearly $400,000 defending its discriminatory firing of transgender teacher Jan Buterman.

The disputes in Alberta have been detrimental to students, faculty, parents, the church, and the wider community. Wells’ failing grades for these two districts may be deserved, but they should not be the case. Catholic education should receive straight A’s when it comes to welcoming and supporting its students–especially LGBTQ students. The good news is that it is never too late to reverse bad policies and renew a commitment to ensuring every student can flourish in Catholic schools.

 

 

Counting the Educational Costs of LGBT-Negative Acts

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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

LGBTQ Policies Fight in Alberta Unresolved After Deadline Passes

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Education Minister David Eggen holding LGBTQ guidelines released in January that helped inform new policies

As of March 31st ,the 61 schools districts in Canada’s Alberta province submitted draft LGBTQ policies, including all government-funded Catholic schools. For months, the issue of drafting these policies has caused disputes, and even after this latest step there is not yet a visible resolution.

Alberta school districts were required to submit draft policies to the provincial government’s Education Ministry, which will now review them to ensure legal compliance. This ends a process that Minister David Eggen called “a very successful exercise,” but is likely not the end. All 17 Catholic districts submitted policies, though the policies’ contents, as well as some officials’ willingness to participate in the process, have varied.  For example:

  • The Medicine Hat Catholic Board of Education added protections for sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression into existing statements.
  • Multiple districts developed similar policies, which the Edmonton Journal noted, were “using identical phrases, and in some cases, written in the same fonts.” These included the Holy Family Catholic Regional School DivisionGrande Prairie and District Catholic SchoolsElk Island Catholic Schools, and Edmonton Catholic Schools, which had earlier approved a policy  described as “practically meaningless.”
  • St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Schools in Leduc remained silent about gender identity.
  • Fort McMurray Catholic Schools will require transgender students to use only gender neutral restrooms and private locker rooms.
  • Calgary Catholic Schools has yet to release its policy to the public, but Calgary’s Bishop Fred Henry said if the Education Ministry refused to budge, “we’re going to end up in court,” according to a columnist in the 

Eggen differed from Henry’s approach, reaffirming the Education Ministry’s commitment to finding resolutions which protect human rights while respecting “religious sensitivities.” He told the Calgary Herald:

“Transgender students, LGBTQ youth, will have the same rights and freedoms as any other child here in the province of Alberta. . . We’re not out to do anything but protect a very vulnerable group of students.”

Despite his desire for common ground, that has included a meeting with the bishops, Eggen and the Education Ministry can try to motivate districts’ compliance through funding cuts or the dissolution of school boards if necessary. Minister Eggen said all policies should be in place by the coming academic year.

The possibility of sanctions has arisen before. Bishop Henry’s comments about a lawsuit are but the latest incident from Catholic officials who have opposed these policies aimed at protecting LGBTQ students. Henry himself described LGBTQ guidelines released by the Education Ministry in January as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic,” writing a second letter in which he refused to apologize for these comments. Other bishops released their own letters of concern, though with far less hyperbole.

The Edmonton Catholic School Board’s actions around a transgender policy have repeatedly made headlines since last summer. Their meetings erupted into a “shouting match” last fall and the Board approved “just discrimination” of some youth in a draft policy last December.

As this process in Alberta ends one stage and begins another, it is worth noting the role Catholic education has played beyond simply being a battleground. This entire process began after a 7-year-old transgender student in Edmonton Catholic Schools sought restroom use consistent with her gender identity. While ecclesial and education officials’ reactions have been split about responding, it was Catholic education which kickstarted a province-wide conversation about sexuality and gender identity.

That conversation has now advanced, but is not over as it seems likely some Catholic districts’ policies will either not meet the legal requirements or be widely different from optional guidelines released in February. But whatever comes next, a question from a columnist in Metro News should help all involved keep perspective:

“. . . [I]n the battle between civil rights and religious freedoms how many LGBTQ children will be collateral damage?”

Charged rhetoric and confrontation by Catholic officials has not prioritized students’ well-being to this point. Hopefully, Catholic bishops and school board members will come to see that protecting LGBTQ students is a vital part of Catholic education and not at odds with the schools’ missions. Otherwise, the process of developing LGBTQ-specific policies may continue for many months, and that would be a defeat for all.

–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

 

Gay Student Asked to Remove Rainbow Flag at Canadian Catholic School

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Dylan Chevalier

A student in a Canadian Catholic school may file a human rights complaint after being asked to remove a rainbow flag during a school ceremony.

Dylan Chevalier, who is gay and attends St. Joseph Catholic High School in Edmonton, Alberta, typically wears a pride flag as a cape during school time. As he tried to wear the flag while processing into the opening ceremony of a basketball tournament, a teacher asked him to remove it.

Chevalier said this request left him “in shock” and “quite angry” because he believes the cape “shows people you are in fact accepted at this high school” regardless of one’s gender identity.

Classmates rallied with Chevalier outside the school last week. One student, Quinn Wade, said they “thought we had come further than” violating a person’s freedom of expression.

But St. Joseph H.S. Principal Hugh MacDonald disagreed with the protesters. Disputing Chevalier’s claim that the student received permission to wear the flag, MacDonald denied that the teacher’s request had anything to do with Chevalier’s flag cape being a rainbow one. He said Chevalier has been allowed to wear the cape routinely, but told the Edmonton Journal the ceremony was “no time to show anything like that off.” MacDonald commented about the student:

” ‘We all get him. He’s not a bad kid. But he can be aggressive and he can be single-minded.’ “

Students are divided about Chevalier’s cape. While he has supporters, detractors say the cape would be “disrespectful for the event” and that reactions are “out of proportion.” Blake Morrison, who has two mothers, called the cape “insulting.”

Chevalier hopes school administrators will apologize for making him remove the cape, but that does not seem likely, according to Principal MacDonald. If the school does not offer a satisfying resolution, Chevalier may file a human rights complaint.

This incident emerges in an already tense situation for Catholic schools in Alberta. The Education Ministry is requiring all publicly funded schools, which include Catholic systems like Edmonton’s, to develop LGBTQ policies by March 31. Discussions about these have been heated. The Edmonton Catholic School Board’s meetings erupted into a “shouting match” last fall and approved “just discrimination” of some youth last December. Calgary’s bishop described recent guidelines for the LGBTQ policies as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic.

The harsh rhetoric and hyperbolic acts which have surrounded this debate for months have only hurt students like Dylan Chevalier who may already feel marginalized. Incidents like the flag controversy at St. Joseph further reveal the need for clearly articulated and supportive LGBTQ policies. Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen met with the province’s four bishops to help advance their common interest in helping all students flourish. Collaborative efforts are more effective at making all feel welcomed and affirmed, perhaps eliminating the need for rainbow flag capes and human rights complaints altogether. Less conflict is always beneficial.

I hope Alberta’s bishops and Catholic school trustees can come to see that Catholic education is actually strengthened when sexual and gender diverse students are welcomed and supported, rainbow flags and all.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry