Gay-straight alliances turn into ‘lightning rod’ of controversy

  • March 30, 2011
TCDSB trustee, John Del GrandeTORONTO - Demands from the NDP’s education critic that the Ontario government force Catholic schools to accept gay-straight alliances are off base because Catholic schools already have government-approved equity programs for students, regardless of their sexual orientation, according to Catholic education groups.

Nancy Kirby, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association, rejected the NDP’s assertion that gay-straight alliances should be the exclusive support group in all Ontario schools for students with same-sex attractions. Catholic schools have always promoted non-discrimination in the classroom and have supports in place for students with same-sex attractions, she said.

Following a decision by the principal at Mississauga’s St. Joseph Catholic High School to disallow a gay-straight alliance, NDP MPP Rosario Marchese said Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty should compel Catholic school boards to establish GSAs in order to conform with the government’s equity policy.

“The ministry of education policy states that all Ontario schools must offer full support to students, such as through a gay-straight alliance. Why is the government refusing to enforce its own policy?” Marchese asked the Premier during Question period March 21.

McGuinty responded that all boards must abide by the equity policy, but added that “boards can find different ways to ensure that they adhere to those policies.”

Catholic school board policies are based on Catholic teaching. Kirby says the Catholic perspective “says we’re caring, respectful places. We’re committed to protecting our students from discrimination. Boards can find different ways to ensure these policies and that’s what we’re doing,” she said.

Kirby said the OCSTA position on gay-straight alliances, the controversial dialogue groups of gay and straight students, is that “labelling at an early age is not fair to the child.”  

That position reflects what Ontario’s Catholic bishops have said about support for students with same-sex attractions. Students should be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity, but GSAs are not suitable for Catholic schools because they ask students to self-identify at too young an age.

Ontario’s equity and inclusive education strategy, launched in 2008, prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. Catholic boards are required to conform to the legislation but the government has respected the constitutionally guaranteed denominational rights of Catholic boards to meet the equity obligations in ways that respect Church teaching.  

According to some trustees, recent pressure from the NDP and gay rights groups pushing GSAs is just the tip of the iceberg with regard to the challenges Catholic schools will face as a result of the equity policy.

Toronto Catholic District School Board trustee John Del Grande says the issue of GSAs has become a “lightning rod”  of unnecessary controversy because Catholic schools already have support groups in place for all students.

He advocates a broader approach to equity, not just on GSAs.

“We maintain certain religious rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution,” said Del Grande.

An education law expert agrees that Catholic schools’ Charter rights should hold up in court, if there was ever a legal challenge.

“If a policy prejudicially affects the (constitutional) rights of denominational schools, a court could strike it down with respect to denominational schools,” said Ontario Superior Court Justice Marvin Zuker.

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