Continued Attacks Against Gay Ambassador Necessitate Pope Francis’ Intervention

May 24, 2016
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Ambassador James “Wally” Brewster

Catholic Church leaders’ attacks against gay U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James “Wally” Brewster continue unabated, and reveal a troubling weak spot that Pope Francis must address in regard to LGBT issues .

Bishop Victor Massalles, the auxiliary bishop of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, told Crux, that Ambassador Brewster was “abusing power” by advocating for LGBT rights in the Caribbean nation.  Such advocacy, however, is not a pet project of Brewster’s, but is entirely consistent with U.S foreign policy.

Citing Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Massalles claimed the U.S. government through its ambassador engages in in “cultural imperialism. . . [and] ideological colonization” by coercing the Dominican Republic to accept social changes which allegedly the country’s populace disavows. Massalles continued his criticism:

” ‘He’s not an ambassador, he’s a gay activist and we’re suffering [from] him as a nation, as a culture, as a country that has its own uses and customs, and its own laws. . .He’s trying to take [away] our right to national self-determination.’ “

Massalles admitted, though, that his claims about U.S. government coercion are “suspicions” rather than facts. He also defended use of an anti-gay slur against Ambassador by Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez in 2013, saying not allowing “an old man to express himself like an old man” would violate the cardinal’s rights.

The bishop’s criticism is but the latest attack from Catholic officials who, since Brewster was appointed in 2013, have issued regular and intense attacks against him. The Dominican Episcopal Conference condemned the ambassador in a March 2016 letter, citing Pope Francis’ concept of ideological colonization. Additionally, a Catholic high school in the capital posted signs this year banning Brewster and his husband, Bob Satawake, from its campus.

Worst of all have been comments by Cardinal López, the leading prelate in the DR. He said previously that Brewster was “wife to a man” and should stick to housework. In 2013, López used an anti-gay slur, and he said Brewster should “take his gay pride elsewhere.”  The Washington Blade reported that López once described LGBT tourists as “social trash” and “degenerates.” Cardinal López’s remarks made Bondings 2.0’s lists of Worst Catholic LGBT News in both 2013 and 2015.

These Catholic attacks are not just aimed at Brewster and Satawake but all LGBT Dominicans, wrote Executive Director of Diversidad Dominicana Rosanna Marzan. She explained in the Washington Blade:

“Those using hateful rhetoric against the ambassador have specific objectives. Among them, to quash the efforts that we as Dominican LGBT civil society activists have undertaken to defend ourselves against the hateful, violent and stigmatizing discourse orchestrated by hierarchies within the Catholic and Evangelical churches and the conservative individuals who support them. . .

“LGBT Dominicans face the threat of violence and hate crimes as well as discrimination in essential services, including healthcare, employment and housing. Impunity is the norm for violations against LGBT people. . .The attacks on Brewster are also attacks on us.”

What is troubling about Bishop Massalles’ latest remarks and the episcopal conference’s March letter is that both cited Pope Francis to justify attacks on Brewster and his husband. What has happened in the Dominican Republic has not been about disagreements over policies or theologies. It has been an unceasing and vicious attack against a human being by the institutional church, an attack which causes broader harm.

When writing about church officials’ attacks against Ambassador Brewster, Bondings 2.0 has repeatedly said papal intervention by Francis is necessary and appropriate –even as he tries to decentralize the Church. Intervention now seems more necessary since anti-LGBT church leaders now cite the pope specifically to justify their prejudice and desired discrimination. There is no justification for prejudice, especially when it is so publicly displayed and when it contributes to human suffering. It is incumbent on Pope Francis to make that clear. At this point, to not do so will cause LGBT advocates and others to question papal intentions about respecting every person’s dignity.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

 

 

 


Top Cardinal: Transgender Rights Are ‘Demonic’; Marriage Equality Is ‘Poison’

May 18, 2016
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Cardinal Robert Sarah speaking at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast

A top cardinal at the Vatican attacked transgender civil rights as “demonic” and compared marriage equality to “poison” during a speech before high-profile U.S. Catholics.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, keynoted the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast yesterday morning in Washington, D.C. His address about family and religious freedom in the contemporary world narrowed into particularly harsh LGBT condemnations. Sarah attacked transgender equality in his speech, saying family is threatened:

“[T]hrough a demonic ‘gender ideology,’ a deadly impulse that is being experienced in a world increasingly cut off from God through ideological colonialism.”

Sarah said efforts towards “tolerance” were really religious persecution, part of an “insidious war” in the U.S. and worldwide to dismantle Catholic teaching. He criticized transgender non-discrimination legislation being debated in many states by his denial of trans identities altogether. He said “nothing could be simpler” than people assigned male at birth using a men’s restroom.

Sarah used portions of his address to attack marriage equality, too. He said the devil is “intent on destroying the family” through “distorted impositions of the family,” including same-gender relationships. The cardinal said non-traditional family arrangements “cause damage to little children” such that children experience “a deep existential doubt about love.” Marriage equality and other legal recognition of non-traditional arrangements is comparable to “putting bandages on an infected wound” while the wound “continues to poison the body.”

In addition to Cardinal Sarah, the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast featured Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, and Fr. Paul Scalia, a priest of the Arlington diocese who is son of late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Pope Francis appointed Sarah as the Vatican’s top liturgist in 2014. These are not the cardinal’s first or even worst negative words in relation to LGBT people. During the 2015 Synod on the Family, Sarah said the LGBT rights movement had “demonic origins” and compared it to Nazism and fascism.  Bondings 2.0‘s Francis DeBernardo, who covered the meeting from Rome, deemed Sarah’s comments the Synod’s “most homophobic remark”. The cardinal previously said marriage equality supporters sought to “destroy the family in Africa.

Is there a rational response to such repeated and irrational comments by Cardinal Sarah? I offer two thoughts.

First, contextual differences may account for a certain, limited amount of his remarks’ intensity. Speaking about spiritual warfare, including the demonic, is far more normative in Guinea, where he was archbishop, and other African contexts. Referencing the demonic is absolutely jarring in a U.S. Catholic context. Cultural differences, Guinean and Roman alike, may also account for the ways in which he misconstrues religious liberty in the U.S. and feeds a narrative of persecution proposed by this nation’s bishops. Sarah should have avoided partisan politics and spoken in a pastorally-sensitive manner during his address.

What is truly inexcusable are Cardinal Sarah’s metaphors about LGBT people and their relationships as a “deadly impulse” and “poison,” as well as his failure to engage contemporary understandings of gender and sexuality before issuing such harsh condemnations. His address shows almost no attention to pastoral realities, nor even the realities of public policy in the U.S. about which he ostensibly is commenting. Cardinal Sarah’s remarks about LGBT people and their civil rights are inconsistent with Pope Francis’ desire for a church of mercy. Rather, his remarks are dangerous words which he should retract and for which he should apologize.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


North Carolina Bishop Distances Himself from HB2 Support

May 8, 2016
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Bishop Michael Burbidge

A North Carolina bishop has distanced himself from initial support offered by the state’s Catholic conference for an anti-LGBT law the legislature is considering. The bishop is now saying the law, which criminalizes public restroom use according to one’s gender identity rather than assigned sex at birth and bans local LGBT non-discrimination protections, raises concerns that should be remedied.

Bishop Michael Burbidge of Raleigh said legislators should rework problematic parts of the law, known as HB2, and he called for mutual respect and dialogue between opposing sides. Burbidge said “another remedy to the unfortunate situation created by the Charlotte Ordinance and HB2 should be considered.” The Charlotte Ordinance is an LGBT non-discrimination law passed in the state’s largest city.

The bishop suggested that a remedy should be guided by a respect for human dignity, the avoidance of bigotry, and a pursuit of the common good, among other factors. He told WRAL 5 that legislators could “come up with something better” that is not understood to be bigoted or misconstrued. His statement at a media luncheon continued:

“No person should feel as though they are unwelcome in our communities of faith. The priests of this Diocese, myself included, remain committed to speaking with anyone who has concerns about how we operate or what we believe. This applies regardless of one’s gender or gender identity. Building strong relationships is fundamental to healthy faith communities. All people are made in the image and likeness of God as man and woman, and we stand ready to continue accompanying all people in their faith walk.”

Burbidge, however, defended the diocese’s policies for “gender specific multi-stall bathrooms and said organizations’ decisions about their own operations “should be respected.” He closed with an appeal for civility in what has become a most contentious debate:

“My hope and call, is that before this issue takes another step in either direction, both sides will treat one another with decency, love, and mutual respect.”

These are Burbidge’s first public comments on HB2 since it was passed in April, although it should not be considered his first time weighing in on the matter. Catholic Voice North Carolina, the bishops’ public policy arm, asked Catholics to oppose the Charlotte LGBT protections ordinance to which HB2 was responding, and said the state law had “yielded a favorable outcome for religious liberty.” Later, a spokesperson for the Raleigh diocese then said that “the Diocese does not have a position on HB2.”

Attacks continue against HB2. The U.S. Department of Justice notified Governor Pat McCrory that this law violates federal civil rights laws, specifically the rights of state workers and students who should be able to access public restrooms. The federal Departments of Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development are inquiring as to whether their civil rights policies are being violated too. Whether Bishop Burbidge’s distancing is tied to the shifting realities in law and in public opinion, or whether he is waking up the fact this law is unjust discrimination is not clear.

Thankfully, as with marriage equality, U.S. Catholics are among the most supportive religious adherents for non-discrimination of LGBT people. New polling from Reuters/Ipsos showed U.S. Catholics evenly split on the question of whether restroom use should be according to one’s gender identity or assigned sex at birth. While more education is needed to improve these numbers, Catholics are more supportive of transgender protections than religious people overall and mirror trends which find people in the U.S. overall split on the issue.

One high-profile Catholic from the Carolinas is speaking out for LGBT equality. Stephen Colbert who hosts CBS’ The Late Show shared his thoughts about the restroom controversies, saying, “And to all those lawmakers out there who are so obsessed with whose using what bathroom and what plumbing they’ve got downtown, newsflash, you’re the weirdos.” You can watch Colbert’s thoughts below or by clicking here.

Ellen K. Boegel, a legal scholar at St. John’s University, wrote in America that these anti-LGBT laws really reflect “a deeper societal divide and [illustrate] the need for reasoned use of political power.” She continued:

“Regardless, politicians and advocacy groups serve their constituents best by avoiding unnecessary controversy and looking instead for mutually beneficial solutions. . .Focusing on outcomes that are universally beneficial will not end all disputes regarding the appropriate balance between civil rights and religious rights, but it would be better government.”

Passing laws which are blatantly unconstitutional undermines government credibility and faith in the democratic process, Boegel wrote, especially when religious liberty is already well-protected. She pointed out, too, that non-gender-specific facilities benefit women, families, and persons with disabilities, in addition to trans* people.

Most bishops, led by the USCCB’s partisan fight over religious liberty, have thus far refused to admit the harm that anti-LGBT state laws can cause.  They do not see that these laws as violating the common good. Protecting LGBT people from very real and harmful discrimination is not on the bishops’ agenda. They seem to forget the many times in the 1970s and 1980s when their episcopal predecessors supported ordinances and laws aimed at curtailing discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation.

But this admission from Bishop Burbidge that HB2 is questionable and may indeed advance discrimination could be the first sign of a shift. His outreach to dialogue with people of all gender identities may open the door for further progress. Let us hope so.  In the meantime, lets keep focused on what we as Catholics can do to ensure every person is protected under the law and respected as a child of God.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

National Catholic Reporter: “North Carolina bishop calls for bathroom bill alternative”


Australian Students Demand Greater LGBT Respect from Catholic Institutions

May 4, 2016
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Advocates rally in defense of Australia’s Safe Schools Program

College students in Australia are protesting an upcoming lecture by a of a Catholic man who claims “reparative therapy” successfully changed his sexuality, the latest dispute about LGBT issues as they relate to Catholic education  in that nation.

The University of Sydney’s Catholic Society will host James Parker tonight to speak about his experiences with “reparative therapy.” Parker is linked to People Can Change, a UK group which administers gay “conversion” programs, and he authored a 2014 piece about his own experience, reported Buzzfeed.

Georg Tamm, a gay Catholic student, said student objections were not to discussions about divergent views on sexuality, but specifically about the harm reparative therapy has caused. Tamm said:

” ‘I would have been OK with them inviting a priest, discussing why men and women are made for each other according to the Catholic scripture. . .But I don’t see the pertinence of inviting someone who is supposedly a patient of successful ex-gay therapy, when it has no scientific merit and is actually quite dangerous.’ “

Tamm said the Catholic Society’s invitation to Parker did not seem “to care about the welfare of those students” who are LGBT or questioning. Such talks, he added, defeat evangelical efforts “at a time when we need people to take the religion seriously and do good things with it.” The Catholic Society denied claims the event promoted prejudice against LGBT people.

Concerned students have appealed to the Student Union to prohibit, or at least refuse to fund, future events promoting reparative therapy. University of Sydney administrators are inquiring into whether restrictions can be placed on campus speakers, too.

Such LGBT controversies in Australian education are increasingly frequent. Last month, St. Francis Xavier College in Melbourne censored a sexual health workbook by requiring students to rip out a page about homosexuality and premarital sex. The Age reported:

“[Y]ear 9 students were called into the hall and told they could not leave until they had thrown a page of the textbook in the bin. . .

“[The [page] included a photo of two men hugging and smiling, and listed different sexual preferences including heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality and asexuality.”

The workbook asked students age-appropriate questions about sexuality and relationships, but Principal Vincent Feeney explained such questions should be addressed in religious education classes rather than health classes. He defended St. Francis Xavier College further by saying it was inclusive of LGBT students and even allowed same-gender couples to attend formal dances. Students remained critical, however, with one calling the ripping of pages a “medieval weak response.” Others refused to tear the page out.

In another story, the Safe Schools Program in Australia, which educates against bullying, has come under fire after four successful years. Conservative politicians have attacked the Program, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a Catholic, has conceded to their demands. Following a government review, Safe Schools Programs, will be limited to high schools and have their content curtailed. A coalition under the name Save Safe Schools has organized rallies and campaigning to ensure funding is sustained and the Program keeps expanding.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a Catholic, described the Program as “social engineering” in his call for its defunding, reported Buzzfeed. Abbott’s sister, Christine Forster, herself a lesbian Catholic, said such comments were “negative and unconstructive” because you cannot engineer a person’s lived reality.

Just two Catholic schools participate in the Safe Schools Program: St. Joseph’s College, a Christian Brothers school; and St. Joseph’s Flexible Learning Centre, both in Victoria. St. Joseph’s College Head Paul Tobias said the Safe Schools debate “put people like me in a particularly difficult position” because of conservative attacks then lodged against the schools. Those pressures do not mean he or the school would be less supportive, however. He told The Age:

” ‘But I don’t believe there is anything in the Catholic faith that should stop us from promoting inclusiveness, diversity, and tolerance. . .

” ‘Every student who attends this school, irrespective of their sexuality, is entitled to be part of a safe environment. We need to accept that there are some kids who are heterosexual and there are some that are LGBTI.’ “

St. Joseph’s College under Tobias’ leadership established a homophobia task force as early as 1997 in response to an alum’s letter about anti-gay bullying. Tobias wrote to federal and state officials supporting the program, but he questioned whether the focused had shifted from promoting diversity and acceptance to focusing on the minutiae of gender and sexuality issues, which he felt would be detrimental to the Safe Schools Program’s mission.

Elsewhere in Australia, students in Catholic schools have challenged their institutions to participate. A gay student at St. Joseph’s College in Queensland asked Principal Michael Carroll for support, but the student’s testimony of intense bullying, but was met with a curt “no.” The student felt betrayed by administrators and teachers whom he admired, reported The Brisbane Times, and he added:

” ‘I hope that it is not the will of the Catholic Church that this group of young Australians, which are 14 times more likely to end their own lives, are not protected. . .All I can do is hope that they do not want to see me being abused, being made to feel uncomfortable and being separated from society, made to feel like a second-rate citizen.’ “

There is nothing in Catholic teaching which endorses marginalization of or discrimination towards LGBT people, particularly youth who are vulnerable and entrusted to the church for their education. Each of these controversies is rooted in flawed Catholic understandings of gender and of sexuality. These understandings refuse to prioritize social justice teachings about LGBT people’s rights and dignity, instead relying upon pseudo-science to validate outdated, but ideologically convenient ideas. As Australian Catholics reckon with how to protect LGBT people and expand their rights, including the question of marriage equality, a dose of honesty and an attentiviness to reality would be most healthy.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 


Catholic Officials Condemn LGBT Murders in Bangladesh, Call for Justice

April 29, 2016
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Xulhaz Mannan, left, and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy

Catholic officials in Bangladesh have condemned the brutal murders of two LGBT advocates, criticizing too the discrimination that sexual and gender diverse communities face in a nation which still criminalizes homosexuality.

Four days ago, Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were killed by militants affiliated with Ansar Al Islam. Mannan founded and edited Roopbaan, the nation’s first and only LGBT magazine, and worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Tonoy was an actor who advocated for gay rights.  Both were hacked to death by machete

Mannan and Tonoy’s murders add to a spree of targeted killings by militants against liberal figures and intellectuals. Al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates are seeking to grow in the majority Muslim nation, and their campaign includes targeting LGBT advocates.

The brutality of these murders by machete, coupled with the victims’ gay identities, has propelled the story into the international spotlight. Two Catholic officials in Bangladesh have reacted forcefully against the murders.

Fr. Albert Thomas Rozario, head of the Archdiocese of Dhaka’s Justice and Peace Commission and a Supreme Court lawyer, told UCA News that justice must be ensured for the two gay men murdered:

” ‘The church always supports the demands of LGBT people for equal rights and opportunities as ordinary citizens. . .We call on the authorities to ensure justice is meted out for the killings, and also to take steps to end discrimination against this community.’ “

Rosaline Costa, a Catholic who is Executive Director of Hotline Human Rights Trust Bangladesh, said the government must do more than just investigate these killings:

” ‘God has given us freedom of choice and nobody is allowed to persecute people for their sexual orientation because of so-called traditional values based on conservative religious norms. A truly democratic society can’t accept abuse in the name of religion. . .

” ‘A proper probe and justice for the killings won’t do much protect the community. The government must ensure that the discrimination of LGBT people ends in this country even though the so-called protectors of Islam might not like it.’ “

The situation for LGBT people in Bangladesh is highly oppressive. Being gay is criminalized with sanctions including life imprisonment. While the law criminalizing homosexuality is a leftover from British penal laws, strong current prejudices lead to cultural disapproval and discrimination. Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim nation, is highly religious, though there are only about 300,000 Catholics or 0.2% of the population. An anonymous advocate with the gay rights group Boys of Bangladesh told UCA News that being LGBT “can result in the denial of every opportunity and rights” and that they are considered “dreadful sinners.”

The deep tragedy of these murders is shining light on the suffering of Bangladesh’s LGBT communities, both in country and abroad. Fr. Rozario and Rosaline Costa countered the idea that religious belief entails LGBT condemnation, and they rejected violence in the name of religion. They acted because of their Catholic faith, not in spite of it, to not only seek justice for Mannan and Tonoy but to demand government action against anti-LGBT discrimination and violence. In this way, where fundamentalist religion and anti-LGBT hate had culminated in the brutality of these murders, Catholics found a way to mediate God’s love and cry out for God’s justice.

But the church’s response must move beyond reactive calls for justice when LGBT people are attack to a proactive solidarity which seeks protections before tragedy occurs. Words from Pope Francis condemning LGBT criminalization would go a long way towards this goal, but he has remained silent. Thankfully, clergy like Fr,. Rozario and lay people like Rosaline Costa are not waiting, but immediately standing with marginalized communities to demand justice and fair treatment.

If Pope Francis would condemn criminalization against LGBTQI people, he would clarify a sometimes ambivalent Catholic stance regarding violence against sexual and gender minorities. Catholics across the world have asked Francis to send a clear message through the #PopeSpeakOut campaign – and you can add your voice by clicking here and learning about a variety of ways that you can contact the pontiff!

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Top Gay Rights Campaigner in UK Speaks Movingly About Her Catholic Faith

April 20, 2016
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Ruth Hunt

In an interview with The Scottish Catholic Observer, a leading gay rights advocate in the United Kingdom spoke movingly about her faith, while at the same time she appealed again for more common ground between LGBT and religious communities.

Ruth Hunt, head of the LGBT rights organization Stonewall, and a Catholic lesbian woman, gave the interview to coincide with LGBT month in Scotland, which this year celebrates the theme “faith, religion and philosophy.” In the interview, Hunt spoke about being raised Catholic, and she said of the faith which she still practices:

” ‘I was brought up Catholic, I believe in one Holy Roman Catholic Church. . .I believe it is where Christ is most accurately reflected. I feel at home there, I maintain a good relationship with the Church, I am pleased to be part of it. . .

” ‘I never felt the need break away. . .In the past, when I didn’t go I found I missed it, it provides community and creates a space that is very profound and spiritual for me.’ “

Hunt later said she “never felt excluded from the Church I attended. . .never felt I wasn’t welcome.” Like many Catholics, though, Hunt has questioned the church, yet remaining Catholic was a “very important thing” in her teenage years and was reaffirmed during her college studies of medieval English.

Hunt acknowledged that some sharp divisions and deep hurt exist between LGBT and religious communities, which can create further difficulties for LGBT people of faith. She explained:

” ‘I do meet people who have had different, difficult experiences though who’ve been damaged by being told to deny their sexuality, who felt rejected by God. . .That’s saddens me, and at Stonewall we often talk about the need for “kind eyes,” when we listen to people.'”

But too often these divisions are “something artificially constructed,” particularly the “over inflated” conflict between religious freedom and LGBT rights that some propose. Hunt noted:

” ‘There are many LGBT people of faith and many LGBT people have lots of friends and family in faith communities. To think in terms of binaries and opposites is not helpful. . .It does concern me the way some opposition is expressed. I don’t think it is Christian to be harmfully offensive. I think there’s always room to disagree with compassion.’ “

Working towards more inclusion in religious communities and more common ground between LGBT and religious communities remain an important task, according to Hunt, because “legal rights only go so far.” She offered advice on how LGBT advocates could proceed as they seek greater justice and equality:

“Hearing the truth of people’s testament is very important. . . A lot can be achieved if you start on basis of love but it’s difficult when people are utterly determined not to hear each other. . .

“We need to reach deeper into communities, to help people be accepted as they live, work, socialise and pray. . .

“The rights of LGBT people don’t get in the way of people of faith who practice that faith.”

This interview is not Hunt’s first time speaking about the need to overcome divisions between LGBT and religious communities. When she was appointed Stonewall’s director in 2014, Hunt recognized that despite legal advances, there was still much work to do to bring about religious and cultural acceptance of LGBT people and their relationships. Last year, Hunt reaffirmed to The Tablet that changing attitudes rather than legislation was her priority. She welcomed Archbishop Vincent Nichol’s support of monthly LGBT outreach Masses near London as an effort to overcome the deep chasm that may exist between faithful Catholics and their church institutions.

Her wisdom is again insightful in this interview with the Observer, and LGBT advocates, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, would do well to read it. Hunt, who recommends listening to the truth of people’s lives, witnesses powerfully by living her own truth as a lesbian Catholic woman refusing to compromise on either her faith or her sexual orientation.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


LGBTQ Policies Fight in Alberta Unresolved After Deadline Passes

April 4, 2016
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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


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