EDMONTON (CCN) — The Alberta government’s Bill 10, which would have allowed “gay-straight alliances” (GSAs) in the province’s schools, made a serious attempt to reconcile the right of student safety with parental and school rights in the education and formation of children, said Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith.
In a letter circulated in parishes in the archdiocese on the Dec. 13-14 weekend after the bill had been withdrawn from the legislature, Smith said public debate on the issue has continued and “the commentary has not always been kind to the leadership of our Catholic schools.”
Catholic schools, he said, insist that the approach to protecting children “be a fully inclusive one,” one that takes into account the many reasons why children may be subjected to bullying.
Besides sexual orientation, Smith listed race, body image and socioeconomic status as reasons why students are sometimes bullied. “Cyber-bullying is a particularly terrible phenomenon from which no student is immune.”
Bill 10, introduced by the Progressive Conservative government in early December and then quickly withdrawn after a public outcry, mandated establishment of clubs which would provide support for lesbian, homosexual, transgendered, bisexual and queer students.
Attempting to balance support for students with parental rights and school board autonomy, the bill would have meant that GSAs would have had to meet off of school property if the groups were not approved by local school boards, a situation that would likely have occurred in Catholic school districts.
Smith, in his letter, said Catholic leaders had “principled objections to certain aspects of Bill 10.” Commentary on those objections may have led some to conclude that Catholic leaders “have little concern for students of same-sex attraction.
“Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.”
The church supports the government’s “laudable goal” of creating safe environments in schools, and Catholic schools already have policies aimed at creating such environments, he said.
That goal can be obtained in many ways, he said. “That is why we challenge any suggestions that one method be not only privileged among others but also mandated.”
As well, the rights of Catholic schools are challenged by mandating GSAs, the archbishop said. “All aspects of school life must be permeated by our faith. The exercise of this right requires freedom to determine both the nature and content of our initiatives so as to accord with our doctrine.”
Any legislation, Smith added, should demonstrate to “all vulnerable students” that “they are embraced by the province’s concern.”
In a concluding paragraph, the archbishop added that on his visits to Catholic schools he finds it clear that school staff are fully committed to providing safe and caring environments.
“Our beloved children need help today to navigate a host of very complex issues, including that of human sexuality.
“In all matters we guide our children in accordance with the faith of the church, as is our right. We are confident that our doctrine is a sure guide to authentic human flourishing and happiness.”
In a separate letter, Calgary Bishop Frederick Henry endorsed Bill 10 as “a win-win for everyone. It enshrined parental rights, recognized the autonomy of local boards and student rights re. diversity clubs without mandating gay-straight alliances.”
However, once the bill was introduced, “for a variety of reasons, things started to go sideways,” Henry said.
“Institutionalized religion” and the bishops were portrayed as a roadblock to mandating GSAs, something Henry characterized as “a stereotypical half-truth.”
Mandating those alliances is problematic for several reasons, he said. “It infringes parental authority over their children, the freedom to instruct one’s children in a manner consistent with their faith, and citizens’ rights to manifest their religious beliefs by worship and practice in the absence of coercion or constraint by government.”
Henry said Catholic leaders support “the establishment of holistic student groups dedicated to the inclusive nature of our schools which serve to promote safe and caring environments.”
Such groups, he continued, would be “open to discussion of a variety of issues, including bullying, justice, respectful relationships and language, and human sexuality issues.”