A controversy over a gay-straight alliance (GSA) bill in the legislative assembly of the Canadian province of Alberta has become a classic example of how Catholic leaders and lay people take different approaches to LGBT issues.
According to CBC.ca, Bill 10 was introduced by the province’s conservative political party “to counter a private member’s bill making gay-straight alliances mandatory in all schools.”
CTVNews.ca provided a succinct history of the complicated progress of the bill:
“In its original form, Bill 10 gave the final say for GSAs to the school boards and told students to go to court if they wanted to challenge it. [Alberta Premier Jim] Prentice said this was the best way to balance the rights of kids, schools and parents.
“When public outrage grew on social media and elsewhere, the Tories on Wednesday passed an amendment allowing the government to set up GSAs at unwilling schools, but with the option of putting the clubs off school grounds.
“Critics pounced on the amendment as institutionalized segregation of gays akin to ‘separate but equal’ Jim Crow laws used to debase African-Americans more than a generation ago.”
As a result of the political controversy the bill has been placed on hold by the Premier of the province to allow for further discussion and debate.
Alberta’s two largest cities, Edmonton and Calgary, already have 94 GSAs in schools, but the province has none in rural areas or in faith-based schools. In Canada, Catholic schools receive state funding, and so are affected by state education laws, though they are governed by local Catholic boards of trustees.
The local Catholic trustees seem to be split about Bill 10. The Edmonton Journal cited one trustee’s opinion:
“Tony Sykora, president of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association, said Catholic school boards provide a wide array of other initiatives and organizations to live up to the Education Act’s mandate to protect all students and believe the decision on gay-straight alliances should be left up to local trustees.”
But when the province’s Catholic school boards agreed to hold off on encouraging GSAs, some trustees and parents became angry. MetroNews.ca reported on the reaction of one of Edmonton Catholic Schools (ECS) trustees to the idea that “inclusive clubs” be instituted instead of GSAs:
“. . . [A]ccording to ECS trustee Patricia Grell, that’s not fair to the district’s LGBTQ students. . . .
“ ‘Appalled was the word that the majority of people used as a description,’ said Grell, referencing the reaction from the community about comments made by ECS board chair Debbie Engel to media about GSAs.
“Grell, who recently penned a blog post about the clubs, said the district needs to reconsider their stance on GSAs to consider what’s best for vulnerable students.
“ ‘I… learned that they are not sex groups or dating clubs but “identity clubs” for students who identify as LGBTQ and their straight friends,’ Grell wrote on her website.”
The two leading Catholic prelates of Alberta have weighed in on the bill, in separate letters, though both encouraged support of the measure. The bishops express concern for LGBT students, but oppose the idea of GSAs as the way to support youth. Calgary’s Bishop Fred Henry stated:
“It enshrined parental rights, recognized the autonomy of local school boards and the students rights regarding diversity clubs without mandating Gay-Straight Alliances.”
Edmonton’s Archbishop Richard Smith provided a similar message:
“We fully support the government’s laudable goal of fostering safe environments in schools. In fact, we already have policies for this very purpose. Any legislation aimed at this objective should demonstrate to all vulnerable students that they are embraced by the province’s concern.”
(You can read the full texts of the bishops’ letters by clicking here and scrolling to the end of the article.)
Yet, a recent poll of Alberta’s Catholics shows that lay people significantly disagree with the bishops’ position. The Edmonton Journal reported:
“. . . [T]he University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minorities Studies and Services released data from a Leger Marketing poll showing more than half of Alberta Catholics support allowing the alliances in schools.
“The online survey of 1,002 Albertans, conducted last week, found 18 per cent of Catholics were strongly opposed or opposed. Fifty-two per cent were in support or strongly in support. The poll numbers are considered accurate to within 6.5 percentage points 19 times out of 20.”
And one Catholic priest has spoken out against the bishops’ position, too. GlobalNews.ca reported:
“Calgary Reverend John Pentland said on Sunday that Bishop Henry’s comments are not helpful to Catholics who support GSAs and object to Bill 10.
“ ‘I’m sure it’s confusing for people, for friends, and our Catholic faith to have their leader say such a thing. I hope they use their own mind and conscience and let their [political representatives] know.’ ”
In the same article, Marni Panas, a transgender Catholic woman in Edmonton, was also quoted opposing the bishops’ stand:
“I’ve come to believe that when left to the people of my church, the ‘average’ Catholics, the true teachings of my faith will prevail.
“We do not need the ‘permission’ of certain leaders to be kind, welcoming, compassionate and loving.”
While this controversy still is not finished, there is already one “casualty” of the debate. The Edmonton Journal followed up with Trustee Grell, quoted above, about her support for GSAs. The article reported a new development:
“On Monday, she said she no longer wanted to speak publicly on the issue, worried about breaking rank with the archbishop. ‘I promised the archbishop I wouldn’t do this anymore,’ she said, citing canon law that gives him the authority to grant an educational institute the right to call themselves Catholic.”
Bondings 2.0 will keep you informed on further developments in this story.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Edmonton Journal: “Bill 10 ‘supports homophobia’ says former Catholic high school student”