Ontario Legislature Passes Gay-Straight Alliance Law Despite Catholic Pressure

Bill 13, the legislation mandating that students be allowed to form gay-straight alliances in Ontario’s public and state-funded Catholic schools, was passed yesterday by the provincial legislature. The vote was 65-36.

The bill was controversial for several reasons, including that leaders of the state-funded Catholic schools did not want to call the student organizations “gay-straight alliances.”   As the Toronto Sun reports, however, notes that Laurel Broten, the provincial Education Minister, praised the support of Catholic teachers and staff. Broten said:

“I’m very, very pleased we had the support of Catholic teachers, Catholic support workers who work in our schools, families and students and student trustees in our Catholic schools.”

Indeed, in the Globe and Mail newspaper, the head of of the English-speaking Catholic teachers’ union supported the passage of the law:

“Kevin O’Dwyer, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, said his 43,000 members welcome the legislation, which passed third and final reading on Tuesday, because it allows schools to protect students from homophobia and other forms of discrimination.

“’ I think it’s going to be a positive experience for students to engage those clubs, whatever name they choose,’ Mr. O’Dwyer said in an interview.

“He is hoping that Catholic school trustees can overcome their objections to legislation that they argue contradicts church doctrine condemning homosexual activity.”

Dalton McGuinty

The Sun also noted Premier Dalton McGuinty’s comment that this is an issue which go beyond the limits of the desires of a particular religious group:

“There are values that transcend any one faith. . . .And if you talk to parents, they’ll tell you. They want their kids to be respected and accepted, they want their schools to be caring places, ideally we’d like to see them as a bit of an extension of the home in terms of the comfort level that our kids might enjoy inside their school.”

The news story went on to say that McGuinty

“believes that Catholic parents, teachers, principals will understand that the Accepting Schools Act is about building a cohesive society and preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation and other grounds.”

The debate about this legislation echoes much of the same debate currently happening in the U.S. over the question of religious liberty.   For example, the Canadian group, Campaign Life Coalition, are quoted in the Sun article stating:

“ ‘Dalton McGuinty and those MPPs who voted in favour of this legislation have declared war against faith communities and made all Canadians vulnerable,’ Mary Ellen Douglas, national organizer of Campaign Life Coalition, says in a statement. ‘They’ve now set a precedent which all Canadians should find alarming. The state interference in Catholic and public schools takes away fundamental rights and puts all Canadians at risk.’ ”

Yet, an editorial in The Ottawa Citizen, entitled “Why ‘gay’ matters,” takes a different perspective:

“Ontario’s Catholics have every right to teach whatever doctrine they want, using whatever words they want, in their homes and churches. But if they want to deliver public education, they must be prepared to acknowledge that some of their students are gay. . . .

“There has been disagreement, even within the gay community, about whether the name of a club matters, if the point is simply to teach kids to be tolerant and kind. But tolerance as an abstract policy means nothing in an environment where the very word ‘gay’ is only ever spoken as a whisper or a slur. If a school declares the word ‘gay’ to be off-limits for clubs, it’s hard to imagine how that school could be a safe place for a young gay student to have an open, respectful conversation with a teacher about the names the other kids are calling him.

“Catholics have the right to practise their religion as they see fit. And a child in a publicly funded Catholic school, who may or may not even be from a Catholic family, has a right to call himself or herself gay, to use the word openly and comfortably, without fear of reprisal. The right to speak the word is inseparable from the right to be free of persecution. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is a terrible message to send Ontario’s kids, especially when the whole idea of the legislation is to help kids feel more comfortable being themselves.”

And a scholar who studies the Canadian educational system offered the following insight in the Globe and Mail:

“Frank Peters, a professor at the University of Alberta and an expert in education policy, said the Catholic educational community has not been well served by this kind of forceful opposition. ‘I think there’s a fairly strong segment within the Catholic church who wonder just exactly how this is in contravention of Catholic teaching.’ ”

The threat of a court challenge means that we haven’t heard the end of this story yet.  But this decisive victory is a cause for celebration that Catholic values of acceptance, inclusion, and non-discrimination have been supported by lawmakers, even though some Catholic leaders worked to defeat these values.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related Bondings 2.0 posts:

May 26: Majority Favors Gay-Straight Alliances in Ontario’s Catholic Schools

April 28:  Catholic Support for Gay-Straight Alliances: ‘It’s what our faith calls    us to do.’

January 29:  It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

January 28:  What’s In a Name?

December 22, 2011:  Silence Is Not Golden

December 2, 2011:  Abolish ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in Ontario’s Catholic Schools


It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

A New Ways Ministry friend from Ontario wrote  to say that our post yesterday about what to name GSAs in Canada’s Catholic state-funded schools may have left the impression that the controversy was over.

It’s not.

While the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association’s (OCSTA) debate about what to name the groups has ended, their decision still has to be reviewed by the Ontario’s Education Minister, Laurel Broten.   Broten’s initial response to OCSTA’s announcement was printed in an article on Xtra.ca:

“”We have set our expectations out clearly in the Accepting Schools Act. We have said that if requested by a student, every school and school board must support the establishment of a single-issue club to support students with a range of issues, including groups like a gay-straight alliance. This bill is still before the House and I hope that every member of the legislature will support the work we’re doing to make Ontario’s schools safe for every student.

“I understand the Catholic trustees have released a paper. And I’ll take a look at that paper. We are creating a law – an accepting school law – that will lay out expectations for every school in Ontario and their obligations around supporting all students.

“My expectation is that every board in this province will abide by our policies – policies that very clearly state that schools need to support student-led initiatives such a gay straight alliance.

“Boards may choose different approaches to meet that expectation, but all must work to the same goal: ensuring every student feels welcome, safe and supported in an environment free from discrimination and harassment.

“If requested by a student, the board must find a way to support the student. For example, the Ottawa Carleton DSB has a Rainbow coalition. This is not about the name but about what support is provided to students.”

So before the naming decision is finalized, it still has to be reviewed, a legislative battle looms, and, most likely court challenges will follow.

Meanwhile, the naming controversy has raised the issue of whether Catholic schools should be receiving government funding. Grant LaFleche in St. Catherines’ Standard opined:

“If anything, this entire ordeal shows that maybe it’s finally time to revisit the complicated political question of public funding for Catholic schools. The provincial government has guaranteed gay students in taxpayer funded schools they can have peer support groups (although they are allowing schools the right to name those groups). The association is trying to marry incompatible ideas — the rights of those students and the church’s view on homosexuality. Were these schools privately funded, it would not be an issue. But they are publicly funded. Which means tax dollars are going to be a measure of discrimination, even if that discrimination isn’t obvious at first glance.”

Chris Selley, in Canada’s National Post was a bit stronger.

“I didn’t think Queen’s Park [site of Ontario’s government buildings] had the stomach for a fight with the Church on this matter, or most any other matter, beforehand. . . . I’ll leave it to gay students in the Catholic system to decide if clubs conducted under the OCSTA’s new policy would constitute an improvement. But politically, this smells to me like yet another attempt to be seen addressing a problem without angering a powerful stakeholder. And it illustrates yet again that when push comes to shove, publicly funded Catholic education, in Ontario, in 2012, makes very little sense at all.

Stay tuned.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry