Education Minister Laurel Broten is insisting that Catholic schools permit single-issue clubs such as gay-straight alliances despite the OCSTA’s outright rejection of such groups in a long-awaited document titled Respecting Differences.

Education Minister Laurel Broten rejects Catholic trustees’ policy statement

  • January 31, 2012

A battle is looming between the Ontario government and Catholic schools after the Education Minister rejected a key component of a new anti-bullying policy from the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association (OCSTA).

Laurel Broten is insisting that Catholic schools permit single-issue clubs such as gay-straight alliances despite the OCSTA’s outright rejection of such groups in a long-awaited document titled Respecting Differences.

Released Jan. 25, Respecting Difference affirms the Catholic identity of Catholic schools by stating that all clubs and activities must be “respectful of and consistent with Catholic teaching.” The document follows the Accepting Schools Act introduced last November by the minority Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty that would require all schools to accommodate gay-straight alliances or similar clubs under a different name.

“We’ve been absolutely crystal clear that we expect students to participate in groups and have the issues important to them talked about,” Broten said in a Jan. 30 interview from Toronto.

“I do feel very confident that Catholic boards will be able to operationalize the expectations we have set out consistent with Catholic education. We all have a responsibility to make sure all of our students and in this circumstance, we’re talking about our gay and lesbian students, or our students who come from families with two moms and two dads. It’s important every one of those students be accepted and welcomed in our schools.”

Broten agreed with the OCSTA document’s goals to combat bullying and said it contains “some very wonderful language.” But Broten said her policy is outlined in her anti-bullying Bill 13, introduced last November, a bill the Catholic Civil Rights League, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and other groups said threatens religious freedom and denominational rights.

OCSTA president Nancy Kirby said in an interview Jan. 26 she knew there would be people who would object strenuously to Respecting Difference but she did not expect it to come from the province. Rather, she expected a legal challenge by an advocacy group.

“The bottom line is there are too many kids being bullied,” Kirby said. “Our struggle was we felt that all kids who are bullied deserve to have the support. That’s why our push back is against highlighting one group as opposed to all of the kids who are being bullied.”

Download the OCSTA document
“RESPECTING DIFFERENCE” - A resource for Catholic Schools in the Province of Ontario [PDF, 523kb]

Bullying is a societal problem that does not just start and end in schools, but takes place in the home and in the workplace, she said. Kids who bully also need help because “they are bullying for a reason.”

But in the Catholic schools, combating bullying must be done within the context of the Catholic faith, she said. The document outlines Church teaching on human sexuality and promotes chastity.

“I don’t think taking away somebody’s religious rights is going to eradicate bullying,” Kirby said.

Catholic Civil Rights League president Phil Horgan agreed. “While students have a right to be free from bullying in all of its forms, Bill 13 goes much further and sets out an effort to advance a radical understanding of gender, adopted from various queer studies movements, of which great numbers of Ontarians may be unaware,” he said in a Jan. 30 e-mail.  

“Forcing a student-led club on these themes on Catholic boards, in a manner implying approval of the subject matter, would be an affront to Church teaching and a subversion or infringement upon the denominational guarantees established in the constitution with respect to Catholic schools in Ontario. Catholic educators have reinforced our concerns with the release of Respecting Difference.”

The OCSTA policy gives Catholic schools a procedure for setting up Respecting Difference groups: they must be open to all students, must be “respectful of and consistent with Catholic teaching,” have mentors who “must know and be committed to Catholic teachings” and only use outside speakers who respect Catholic teaching.

“Properly understood, difference is something to be recognized in a society that honours diversity, multiculturalism and human rights,” the document says. “Respecting difference does not mean insisting that another person share our views.”

Tolerance does not mean agreement, it says, and that includes beliefs on acceptable sexual conduct.

“While it is an all too human temptation to insist that others share our beliefs and to eradicate the frameworks that make a variety of choices possible, forced acceptance of beliefs about which we may differ is not the hallmark of a free and democratic society but rather its opposite... This resource is based upon the need to recognize that it is possible to respect, affirm and support the dignity of another person while at the same time disagreeing with their viewpoint on sexual morality.”

Broten’s stance is nothing new. Late last year, she and Premier McGuinty insisted Catholic schools must have GSAs if students request them. Broten has called criticisms of the anti-bullying policy “homophobic.”

The OCSTA has had conversations with the province, Kirby said, noting the policy has had input from throughout the Catholic community, including bishops, trustees, teachers, students and Catholic ratepayers. It has also received legal opinions.

“When you are trying to get a document to help students within the parameters of government legislation and is very mindful of our Catholic teachings, that takes time.Every word is checked and rechecked.

“The bottom line is about eradicating bullying for whatever reason.”

Kirby added that there “are changes we’d like to see in Bill 13,” and when public hearings are held, the OCSTA will take part, “working with them as best we can within our denominational rights.”

Respecting Difference seems to anticipate a possible legal challenge by stressing parents’ prior rights to educate children, constitutional rights to Catholic education and Charter protections for religious freedom.

Download the OCSTA document
“RESPECTING DIFFERENCE” - A resource for Catholic Schools in the Province of Ontario [PDF, 523kb]

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