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July 10, 2012
Stephen Lazarus

Preventing bullying in schools is not usually such a hot-button, divisive issue.  But Ontario’s “Bullying Bill,” Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act, generated months of controversy, parental complaints, and a demonstration of nearly 300 protesters marching through downtown Toronto to the Legislature at Queen’s Park.  Why?  

Bill 13, which passed in June, will require Catholic and other religious schools to host “Gay-Straight Alliances” as part of a larger package of mandated measures to address bullying.  A second anti-bullying bill that did not pass, Bill 14, did not include the controversial provision, but did include many strategies to create safer schools. The Gay-Straight Alliance mandate was advocated by the gay, lesbian, and transgendered community, but opposed by Catholic school administrators and by Catholic Diocese including Cardinal Thomas Collins.

The debate is much more complex than it seems.  Supporters of the GSA mandate, (including Minister of Education, Laurel Broten, who sends her children to Catholic schools) argue that the bill simply creates the opportunity for clubs in schools where students can gather to support one another and organize to promote safer schools and an end to bullying.  She says the bill does not mandate these groups in every school, it just requires that clubs called “Gay Straight Alliances” be allowed if students want them. GSAs, originally founded in the U.S. in the 1980s also typically register with the external non-profit group, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network.  

Those opposing the GSA provision say they are fully on board to address bullying, including bullying based on sexual orientation (and already have developed detailed plans to do so). But they argue that the history and mission of Gay-Straight Alliances (see http://www.gsanetwork.org) shows that GSAs exist to promote the acceptance of homosexuality and lesbianism in schools as well as other priorities and political goals of the LGBTTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, two-spirited, intersexed, queer and questioning) movement. Advocates of GSAs don’t have a problem with bullying policies in Catholic schools, some Catholic school officials argue.  They have a problem with Catholic teaching and doctrine about sexuality with which they disagree.

Because of unreconciled conflict over these kinds of issues in society, the bill that could have focused attention on the multi-faceted problem of bullying became instead a debate over sexuality and the right of Catholic schools under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to operate according to Catholic principles and in accordance with Catholic teaching.

Perhaps, instead of being an unfortunate distraction, this is a very good thing.  More informed public debate is needed about what to do when these freedoms clash in today’s public square. Though not everyone agrees, Catholic schools should not have to leave faith behind at the schoolroom door.  The government does have a duty under law to respect the particular identity and mission of Catholic schools. After all, they are funded to be Catholic and are expected to have a different kind of identity than secular public schools to which they provide an alternative.  

Parents choose Catholic schools because they provide an education and an environment rooted in the Catholic faith tradition.  Public funding does not change their right to follow their principles and precepts. Religious freedom under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has meaning only if people are free to live out their faith in both public and private, in families and in public institutions.

By mandating the formation of GSAs in all Ontario schools, the government with Bill 13 may very well have overstepped the limits of its authority.  Numerous organizations are now debating how best to challenge the controversial part of the bill in the courts.

This raises some very interesting questions:

1. What are the limits of the state’s authority when developing policies that affect the mission of religious institutions?

2. What legal principles are available to address these conflicts when, for example, gay rights clash with religious freedom?
 
It will be interesting to watch whether Bill 13 will stand up to a legal challenge. Opponents argue that the bill represents a classic case of government overreach, unnecessary micromanaging, and the unjustified imposition of secularism on religious schools in Ontario.  Advocates maintain it is necessary that all schools be able to have these clubs to create a safe climate for students.

In the meantime, one option for Catholic and other religious schools affected—who object on conscience grounds to the mandate—would be to implement Gay-Straight Alliances as required by the bill, but only on the condition that they be run in a manner consistent with Christian, Jewish, Muslim etc teaching that is taught elsewhere throughout the school and the curriculum.  

Alternatively, Ontario’s religious schools could ask the question that went largely unasked during the debate:  Is the government’s intention that we create safe schools free of bullying (which we are prepared to do); Or is it that the government wants to deny us the right to follow our doctrines and beliefs about sexuality which some people in society object to because they hold different views?
 
If the latter is true, the courts will have no choice but to strike down Bill 13 on constitutional grounds.  In that case, the whole controversy will seem in hindsight like little more than the promotion of “tolerance” through unjustified, intolerant means.

 

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Stephen Lazarus is an episode producer, researcher & writer for Context. 

 



Comments

This bill is an affront to all parents who have moral & biblical convictions about homosexuality etc. This bill will not stop bullying at all. The heart must be changed first, & then the outward life pattern will be evidenced. This is a pernicious evil foisted upon the children & their parents. It is, I believe, unconstitutional & must be challenged in our courts. Mr. McGunity is man who cannot be believed or trusted.
July 27, 2012 | Jim Comte

Why can,t we strike outside the schools and not enter the school till they change this bill? People demonstrate and strike all the time. Why do we have to be defeated, why can,t we stand up and peacefully make our government know that they can,t do this to our children. Do not enter the school till bill 13 is changed.
July 27, 2012 | Michelle

I truly believe that our minority government has overstepped the limits of it's authority and hope the legal challenge takes place. The Premier's blatant disrespect for the legislature and the democratic process surrounding Bill 13 and 14 extended to public hearings. Religion and sexual orientation aside, 80% of submissions made at those public hearings were not in favour of Bill 13. Our education premier basically told Ontarians to get stuffed and proceeded with his normal "majority" attitude. While allowing one group to own the issue of bullying he is discriminating against and re-victimizing every other child that does not fall into the 3% of the student population identified as LGBT youth. I believe he has set a very perilous precedent. There will be fallout over Bill 13 and what is worse......it will fall on the backs of our children. By the way, don't ever publicly state you are not in favour of GSA's as you open the door to being accused as being homophobic by our minority Government.
July 14, 2012 | Karen Sebben


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