A rally is scheduled for April 28 in Kitchener, Ontario, against an Ontario government bill that protest organizers say will “subvert parental rights and freedom of religion.” An earlier rally, on March 29 in Toronto, drew a crowd of 2,000.
Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act, was introduced in late 2011 and is currently being debated at the second reading stage. The intent of the bill is “to amend the Education Act with respect to bullying and other matters.” The bill would establish a “Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week” in November. It would also require schools to conduct “school climate surveys” (to determine the amount of bullying that occurs) and to implement anti-bullying policies.
However, rally organizer Kim Galvao, head of Concerned Catholic Parents of Ontario, says, “Bill 13 is a veiled attempt to push a sex ed agenda, under the guise of anti-bullying.” The bill is being opposed by Jewish, Muslim, evangelical Christian and Catholic groups.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada has issued a number of statements outlining the problems that it sees with the bill.
Gay-Straight Alliance Clubs
The issue that is garnering the most attention is an amendment to section 303 of the Education Act which says that “Every board shall support pupils who want to establish and lead activities or organizations that promote” gender equity; anti-racism; awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people with disabilities; awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, including organizations with the name gay-straight alliance or another name.
It is the fourth of these proposed student organizations, gay-straight alliance clubs, that has caused most of the complaints and created the charge that the bill is using the problem of bullying to push a sexual agenda.
On January 25, 2012, the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association released a document called Respecting Difference. The document says that Catholic schools will accept student requests to establish groups to address the safety needs of students dealing with bullying, including bullying in regard to gender identity or sexual attraction. However, it says that these groups should be called Respecting Difference groups rather than gay-straight alliance clubs, which come with an externally developed agenda. Further, it says that these groups must operate in accordance with Catholic beliefs and will not be used as forums “for activism, protest or advocacy of anything that is not in accord with the Catholic faith foundation of the school.” The document also states that issues of gender identity and sexual attraction are “complex, delicate and highly personal” and therefore should not be discussed in such student groups but “are best dealt with privately and confidentially with proper counselling and chaplaincy staff.”
The proposed legislation does not require that the groups be called gay-straight alliances, but Minister of Education Laurel Broten has said that the proposed Catholic model is not acceptable. She told the Hamilton Spectator newspaper that the clubs must be “issue specific” and that club names must ensure that “it will be absolutely clear what that group is about.”
The issue particularly affects Roman Catholic schools because in Ontario they are considered an alternate public school system, parallel to public schools, with elected boards and full government funding.
It is not clear how the legislation will affect other Christian schools, as well as schools run by other faiths, since these schools are considered “businesses or non-profit organizations” and receive no government funding. However, in a detailed analysis of this aspect of the issue, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada has noted that the Ministry of Education’s inspection of private schools could be used to enforce the same regulations on them.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) has issued a comprehensive resource called Ontario’s Bill 13, The Accepting Schools Act, and Anti-Bullying Initiatives: What You Need To Know. Among other things, this document outlines a number of problems with the proposed clubs. One is that the legislation lacks “sensitivity” and “flexibility.” In singling out four groups for such clubs, the legislation does not allow schools to respond to specific bullying issues in local communities. Moreover, the EFC suggests that encouraging students to form issue-specific clubs “may in fact increase the frequency of bullying in Ontario by isolating and segregating students.” The EFC says that while the goal of stopping bullying is laudable, “Attempting to address an issue as complex as bullying by legislative force is debatable.” The EFC goes on to suggest that “The remedy for bullying in schools is not gay-straight alliance clubs, but rather proper character formation”—a task which must involve parents and churches as well as schools.
The EFC has also issued a paper called By the Numbers: Rates and Risk Factors for Bullying: A Brief Examination of Canadian Bullying Statistics. The statistics assembled there show that bullying seems to be declining slightly in schools. Moreover, while the government bill focuses on bullying regarding sexual orientation, the studies show that the three most common occasions for bullying are body image (being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or braces or unfashionable clothes), grades or marks, and cultural background. In other words, the anti-bullying bill does not address all of the most common sources of bullying. The research also shows that LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer) students are twice as likely to be bullied for their sexual orientation as heterosexual students. However, since such students make up less than three percent of the student population, they represent only a tiny minority of bullying victims. The EFC paper also points out that bullying based on religious beliefs is “commonly overlooked” yet statistically very significant, probably accounting for more than 10 percent of bullying in schools.
Freedom of Religion
The EFC states that the provisions in Bill 13 “likely violate the individual religious freedom of families and the institutional religious and associational freedoms of religious schools and boards,” which, the EFC says, are guaranteed by the Constitution Act, 1867, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Ontario Human Rights Code. As well, the bill violates the right of parents “to ensure the religion and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions” as upheld by Canadian court decisions and by The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The EFC concludes that, if passed, the bill will result in “years of expensive, tax-payer funded litigation.”
The Ontario government has denied that Bill 13 conflicts with religious freedoms. Glen Murray, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, is in a homosexual relationship and states that he is an Anglican Christian. During debate on the bill in the Ontario legislature on March 29, he said “There’s no one here that’s suggesting that we shouldn’t teach a Catholic perspective in our schools.” However, in the same speech, he stated that Catholic teaching that “presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity” and “intrinsically disordered” is not acceptable. He added, “I have to say to the bishops: ‘You’re not allowed to do that anymore.’”
Premier Dalton McGuinty is Roman Catholic but has said that he aims to reform the province’s attitudes on homosexuality, a process that “should begin in the home.”
In fact, the preamble of the bill states that the intent is partly to change students’ values in this area: “The people of Ontario and the Legislative Assembly … believe that students need to be equipped with the knowledge, skills, attitude and values to engage the world and others critically, which means developing a critical consciousness that allows them to take action on making their schools and communities more equitable and inclusive for all people, including LGBTTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, two-spirited, intersexed, queer and questioning) people.” The preamble goes on to say that the people and legislature of Ontario “recognize that a whole-school approach is required, and that everyone — government, educators, school staff, parents, students and the wider community — has a role to play in creating a positive school climate and preventing inappropriate behaviour, such as bullying, sexual assault, gender-based violence and incidents based on homophobia.”
This issue was particularly addressed at the March 29 rally in Toronto. Charles McVety of the Institute for Canadian Values charged that the bill is offensive because it is “forcing teachers, Christian teachers, Jewish teachers, Muslim teachers, to teach things that are contrary to the values that they hold.”
Rabbi Mendel Kaplan of Chabad Flamingo Synagogue in Toronto, said, “This legislation proposes that children be indoctrinated to reject their parents’ faith and their parents’ family values, and that’s an affront.”
Jack Fonseca of Campaign Life Catholic, said it is “absurd” for government leaders to think they can dictate “what kind of Catholicism gets taught in a religious school … They don’t have the right to change Catholic teaching.”
Dominic Tse, pastor of North York Community Chinese Church, compared Bill 13 to the totalitarian tactics used in communist China that many in his community fled from: “We are not going to allow the government … to dictate to us what we need to do and what we need to think.”
Use of Schools for Sunday Services
The EFC has also pointed out another religious freedom issue in the legislation. Bill 13 proposes adding the following clause to section 301 of the Education Act: “If a board enters into an agreement with another person or entity, other than a board, respecting the use of a school operated by the board, the board shall include in the agreement a requirement that the person or entity follow standards that are consistent with the code of conduct.”
The EFC notes that, given “the aggressive way in which [Bill 13] is being imposed on all schools, without accommodation or exception,” the bill may mean that churches might be prevented from renting schools for their Sunday services, leaving “countless Ontarians” without a place to worship: “Will church, synagogue, mandir and sangat groups be expelled from school classrooms and auditoriums because of sacred text passages on a wide variety of issues, such as love, marriage, sin and sexuality? Will we witness groups that cannot afford to purchase their own facilities being pushed out of Ontario’s public spaces?”
The EFC has also pointed out that “name-calling” is a form of bullying. Glen Murray, in particular, has called those who opposed a controversial sexual education curriculum (withdrawn by the government last year) as “right-wing reactionary homophobes,” and he has characterized those who oppose Bill 13 as “a few thousand extremists.”
Current Minister of Education Laurel Broten has also labelled opponents of Bill 13 as “homophobic.”
In an open letter to the members of the Ontario legislature, The EFC pointed out that in demanding respect for LGBTQ students, the government should also model respect for other students and their parents. The EFC also argued that respect does not require forcing everybody to think alike: “Instruction and modelling of respect for all students is required of the curriculum and the classroom environment. This does not mean all students must be forced to be friends, or agree with one another on all points. And, it does not mean that there can’t be debate or constructive disagreement.”
The Political Situation
The Liberals lead a somewhat precarious minority government, having narrowly avoided defeat on its recent budget. However, Bill 13 is still likely to pass. The New Democratic Party not only supports Bill 13 but wants to strengthen it by forcing schools to accept the name “gay-straight alliance” if students ask for it.
Progressive Conservative MPP Elizabeth Witmer introduced a private member’s bill, Bill 14, the Anti-Bullying Act, on November 30, the same day as Bill 13 was introduced. It has also received second reading. It covers some of the same ground as Bill 13 but without the elements that religious groups have found objectionable.