The GSA controversy led to a number of editorials in national newspapers including this one from The Globe and Mail.

Media coverage of GSA controversy veers off-topic

  • June 5, 2012

The long-running controversy concerning Ontario’s anti-bullying legislation has been covered by the media from the beginning with varying degrees of accuracy. But for inciting a string of negative coverage about Catholic schools and the Church in general, few events match coverage of the Ontario government’s May 25 announcement that all schools must provide gay-straight alliances if requested by students, followed by media reaction to statements from Cardinal Thomas Collins and other Catholic educators.

“Toronto’s Catholic Cardinal has a mistaken view of religious freedom,” thundered The Globe, editorializing that the cardinal’s viewpoint — that Catholic schools should be free to combat bullying in a manner consistent with Catholic teaching — is out of keeping with modern constitutional rights, and “public money should not be put toward discriminatory uses.”

Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn claimed the Church “sees GSAs as a cancer on its catechism, to be rooted out before the movement metastasizes…. By targeting GSAs, demonizing them, declaring them unwelcome, the Church is picking a fight it will not win, a battle it should not fight, a cause it cannot justify.”

For many newspaper columnists and letter writers, the issue soon became one of de-funding Catholic schools, with claims that “public” money should not be used to fund religious teaching, especially when it is so “discriminatory.”

This type of reporting is typical of media coverage about Church teaching on homosexuality. There’s a near-constant emphasis on the words “intrinsically disordered,” but much less mention of the teaching that homosexuals, like all people, “must be treated with love and respect” or that “unjust discrimination against them must be avoided.”

Talk radio has been equally negative. There has been a broad consensus that the Church is wrong to resist GSAs, and such attitudes will lead to de-funding in the long run. Similar references have been dominating the anonymous discussion boards, but since the people are “speaking” unidentified there is also anti-religious invective and references to the clerical sex scandal. Among these groups, these rants apparently pass as intelligent comment even when people don’t have to identify themselves.

Some of the more general discussions about bullying were interesting. It’s one of those topics where almost everyone has some memories and opinions to share. The National Post has had some very good reports that presented all sides of the issue, as have some Sun Media reports and columns.

But, as an overall observation, most of the talk about “public money,” “homophobia” and “constitutional rights vs. human rights” is a case of jumping on things nobody said. All of the people and organizations who made presentations to Queen’s Park about two anti-bullying proposals were opposed to bullying in all its forms, supported efforts to combat it and were only critical of some specific aspects of Bill 13. Even some people who support anti-bullying student groups based on gender and sexual orientation expressed concern about a lack of adult supervision implied in the Bill’s wording. With the exception of a few presenters who were very strongly pro-GSA, no presenter mentioned the funding of Catholic schools as an issue in anti-bullying policies. Except for references to the Catholic system’s constitutional status, Catholic presenters did not bring it up either, and neither did the cardinal’s statement. With apologies to the secularist advocacy group Centre for Inquiry, the funding of Catholic schools is hardly an elephant in the room, but more like an ever-present sub-theme in Ontario school politics.

Only a few weeks before the present crisis, the talk lines lit up because a Catholic high school invited voluntary participation in some pro-life activities, including the March for Life. John Tory, whose CFRB talk show broadcast some very negative comments about the Catholic position on   GSAs and how it makes it hard to justify public funding for Catholic schools, lost a provincial election in 2007 partly because of his support for extending some funding to schools operated by other religions.

There is always a fair amount of support for merging Ontario’s two schools system — a poll in January placed support at 53 per cent — and a news story such as the GSA controversy is going to stoke that sentiment. It’s impossible to predict whether Catholic schools’ funding status will change, but it is a certainty that the media will be there to report every distortion and mis-quote that comes up along the way.

(McGarry is executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, which proposed changes to Bill 13 in hearings of the Select Committee on Social Policy at Queens Park.)

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