Education Minister Laurel Broten "respects the constitutional protection of Catholic education."

Broten affirms constitutional rights of Catholic education

  • June 4, 2012

The Ontario government respects the constitutional rights of Catholic education and is committed to its continuation, said Education Minister Laurel Broten.

Speaking to The Catholic Register in the wake of Cardinal Thomas Collins calling the Liberal's amended version of Bill 13 an infringement on religious freedom, Broten also rejected calls from some politicians and media for a single, secular education system.

"I've been very clear," she said. "The premier's been very clear. We respect the constitutional protection of Catholic education and that conversation is not on the table."

Conservative education critic Lisa MacLeod has suggested the Liberals are deliberately provoking a backlash against Catholic schools as a first step to creating a single educational system. Broten said that is untrue.

"My focus on Bill 13 has nothing to do with funding for Catholic education," she said. "It has everything to do with support for students. We have been firm in our commitment that Catholic education is an important part of the wonderful education we have in this province."

Broten said she was persuaded by students and teachers to amend Bill 13 to give students the sole right to call anti-bullying clubs gay-straight alliances if they chose. The amendment lost her the support of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association but the Ontario English Catholic Trustees Association, in the midst of contract negotiations with the government, reaffirmed its support for Bill 13.

As president of the Association of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, Collins came out swinging against the amendment, calling the sudden shift bizarre.

"This idea that any student would be able to override the principal or the trustees... that's an unusual way to do things," said Collins. He called the policy shift an affront to religious freedom, saying he was very troubled by "this narrowing, this hardening, this inflexibility."

Gay-straight alliance is more than a name. Conceived in the United States in the 1980s, GSAs have an approach to sexuality and human development at odds with Catholic teaching, Collins said.

But after some Catholic students supporting GSAs appeared before the legislative committee reviewing Bill 13, Broten decided to let the student voice trump trustee objections and the objections of several other people and groups who made presentations to the committee.

"We heard from students. The students and adults who support those students came to committee hearings and said that they wanted to have the choice of what to name their student-led club, because it's all about protecting our students and empowering them," Broten said.

The amendment, first proposed by the New Democrats, hasn't shattered the relationship between the minority government and the Catholic education community, Broten believes.

"We are very pleased that the Catholic teachers, who work with our students, understand the need for our students to have a voice," Broten said.

"If the students feel that a club should be called a GSA — that it makes a difference to them — then we respect and accept that choice," OECTA president Kevin O'Dwyer said in a press release.

After the trustees in May clarified their Respecting Difference policy on student-led anti-bullying campaigns to affirm their support for single-issue anti-homophobia clubs, Broten believes Catholic schools will have no trouble living with GSAs.

"I feel so confident that Catholic education can operationalize Bill 13," Broten said.

Green Party leader Mike Schreiner has reaffirmed his party's support for scrapping provincially funded Catholic school boards, citing the controversy over GSAs and public school closings in areas of declining enrollment.

"We owe it to students to ensure that our schools are safe for all children and respect the diversity of our society," said Schreiner.

The Toronto Star and Globe and Mail ran editorials that supported the government's amended Bill 13.

"Each time Catholic officials and trustees show themselves to be well behind what their students want and broader society supports, they inevitably renew calls to pull public funding from Catholic schools," said the Star's lead editorial May 30.

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