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Catholic schools say they can work with GSAs

By Glen Argan
Western Catholic Reporter

03/25/2015

EDMONTON (CCN) — Catholic officials are welcoming new Alberta legislation which will give students the right to establish gay-straight alliances in the province’s schools.

“We see this legislation as something we can work within,” Rev. Stefano Penna told reporters March 12.

Likewise, the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association (ACSTA) issued a prepared statement saying, “Catholic schools will be able to work with the legislation.”

Penna, vice-president of college development and advancement, spoke at a news conference to give a Catholic perspective on Bill 10, which the legislature passed March 10.

The legislation does not override the way Catholic schools have always operated and is “wider and more inclusive” than original amendments introduced in the fall of 2014, he said.

Catholic Albertans lobbied for a law which respects the Catholic identity of schools, Penna said. “I can tell you that Catholic Albertans were heard.”

The bill states that any student has the right to receive the help of school staff “to establish or lead an activity or organization intended to promote a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment that respects diversity and fosters a sense of belonging.”

Those activities or organizations can promote equality with respect to “race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, physical disability, mental disability, family status, sexual orientation and gender identity, including but not limited to organizations such as gay-straight alliances, diversity clubs and anti-bullying clubs.”

Students who want to start such a club “may select a respectful and inclusive name for the organization, including the name ‘gay-straight alliance’ or ‘queer-straight alliance,’ after consulting with the principal,” the bill says.

Penna said the new legislation is “wider and more inclusive” than the original bill proposed last year in that it allows for clubs to be established on a wider footing than sexual orientation.

The legislation calls Catholic schools “to do what has always been our mandate and to do it with love and to do it reasonably,” he said. Catholic schools always practise inclusivity and see all children as created in the image of God.

The ACSTA statement said, “The amendments allow local schools and school boards the flexibility needed to respond to students’ needs at a local level.

“The legislation now addresses all vulnerable students, something our organization has been advocating since the bill was initially introduced.”

Meanwhile, the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta released a document with guidelines for forming student groups to explore, within a Catholic context, issues such as “bullying, sexual harassment, sexual orientation, gender identity, discrimination, justice, and respectful relationships and language.”

The lengthy document — Lived Inclusion For Everyone (LIFE) — acknowledges that some students may be at risk because they have same-sex attractions or identify with different genders.

It also says students may suffer discrimination or isolation due to their body image, race, culture, language, school performance, lack of social connection or other reasons.

The LIFE document says the student groups will “support the mission, vision and core values of the school and school jurisdiction while upholding the sanctity of human life through discussions, acts of justice and social action within the context of Catholic teaching on social relationships.”

The groups should be led by Catholic facilitators and can conduct activities such as exploring how inclusive practices enhance the life of the school, the document says.

It says that, in line with the Alberta Human Rights Act, parental consent may be required for participation in such groups when they deal with human sexuality or sexual orientation.

Asked whether that provision would require the school to “out” some students — inform unaware parents of their child’s sexual orientation — Penna said “the engagement” between schools and parents should be “prudential” to ensure that the child is not endangered.

Resources that help parents deal with issues of gender identity should be employed, he said. “Sometimes parents need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ how one is to engage with love and acceptance.”

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