Ontario politicians are drawing a line in the sand with publicly funded Catholic schools. On one side is Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act. The anti-bullying legislation will allow students to form “organizations with the name gay-straight alliance or another name.” On the other side is the Catholic church, which insists non-specific names such as “respecting differences” are adequate. They say LGBTQ students can form groups to counter bullying, but they cannot use a name the church finds offensive.
Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto and President of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, issued a statement that says, in part:
To our friends and neighbours of other faiths, or of no faith, including those who disagree with any or all of the beliefs of the Catholic Church, and those who personally support the beliefs that form the context for GSAs: please consider the implications for all when legislation is enacted that overrides the deeply held beliefs of any faith community in our province, and intrudes on its freedom to act in a way that is in accord with its principles of conscience. If it happens to us, it can happen to you, on this and other issues. When religious freedom becomes a second class right, you also will eventually be affected.
The Archbishop’s response reminds me of a quote from Zechariah Chafee. In “Freedom of Speech in Wartime” in the 1919 “Harvard Law Review,” he wrote: “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” No one has an inherent right, whatever their “deeply held beliefs,” to bully another human being because of their sexual orientation.
Catholic and other religious organizations that exclude LGBTQ people from full acceptance are swinging their arms and hitting a lot of noses. Calling it “religious freedom” does not lessen the encouragement it gives to those who excuse their bullying by citing religious precepts.
Egale Canada’s 2011 study puts numbers to the severity of the issue. “Every Class in Every School: Final Report on the First National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia in Canadian Schools” is an embarrassment for a country that prides itself on being open and accepting. For example, among the key findings are:
- 70% of all participating students, LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ, reported hearing expressions such as “that’s so gay” every day in school and almost half (48%) reported hearing remarks such as “faggot,” “lezbo,” and “dyke” every day in school.
- 74% of trans students, 55% of sexual minority students, and 26% of non-LGBTQ students reported having been verbally harassed about their gender expression.
- Over a quarter (27%) of youth with LGBTQ parents reported being physically harassed about the sexual orientation of their parents.
- Almost two-thirds (64%) of LGBTQ students and 61% of students with LGBTQ parents reported that they feel unsafe at school.
With numbers like those, the need for the Accepting Schools Act is clear. Excusing intolerance on the basis of “hate the sin, love the sinner” does nothing to dismantle prejudice based on profound misunderstanding of the nature of sexual identity.
An editorial in the Globe and Mail explained it this way:
Let’s put this in perspective. All that’s being asked is that a vulnerable group of youths be able to meet under the name that makes them vulnerable. The province is trying to live up to the spirit of its anti-bullying law, which in its first version, introduced last fall, would have permitted schools to bar the name gay-straight alliance – a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of non-acceptance.
This is no mere abstract debate. It’s about helping gay teenagers, or the children of gay parents, build protective bridges for themselves in a world from which they have often felt cast out. Leaving out one group of victims defeats the law’s purpose. And Ontario has an overriding interest in protecting all young people.
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