Trustees for Canada’s largest publicly-funded Catholic school district have backed away from adding LGBTQ-specific protections to their policies, just as those trustees face a discrimination claim made by an LGBTQ family.
Last week, a subcommittee of the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) approved a proposed update to the system’s code of conduct that omits specific non-discrimination protections based on gender identity, gender expression, marital status, and family status, despite calls from many people to do so. Discussions of these protections had been underway for several months. The Star reported on the Catholic Education and Living Our Catholic Values subcommittee’s proceedings:
“The motion, passed at the 11th hour of a lengthy meeting Wednesday night, ignores a directive from the [Ontario] Ministry of Education sent in October, 2018, that asked boards to update their codes by Nov. 4, 2019, so that they align with the province’s, which includes the terms. . .Instead of adding the protections to the code, trustees wrote a seven-paragraph motion that affirms, in part, ‘that all people are created in the image and likeness of God and are deserving of respect and dignity.’ “
That new language omitting any LGBTQ-specific protections was approved by the committee in a 4 to 1 vote. Maria Rizzo, the chair of TCDSB and the single no vote, commented:
” ‘I was sickened by it, by the hypocrisy, by the homophobia and the fear-mongering . . . We can’t allow words that threaten to stigmatize our LGBTQ students.’ “
Norm Di Pasquale, a TCDSB trustee, chided opponents of LGBTQ protections for causing “highly contentious and divisive meetings,” according to The Catholic Register:
” ‘There were three hours of delegations in a crowded room, where people had to strain to hear each other. Our student trustees shone, standing up for inclusiveness and bringing the student voice to the discussion. . .This is a divisive issue but didn’t have to be. . .Ontario creates a Code of Conduct for schools that we need to be consistent with. The easiest thing to do to comply with regulations and the law would have been to make it consistent.’ “
Di Pasquale highlighted the risk of not complying with Ontario’s Human Rights Code, which could mean losing government and corporate funding that the school system relies upon.
One incident of alleged discrimination has highlighted the need for explicit and expanded protections for LGBTQ people involved with Toronto’s Catholic schools, which constitute the world’s largest publicly-funded Catholic education system. CBC News reported that a Catholic school staff member took down a kindergarten student’s family photograph because it depicted the child’s LGBTQ family, namely the child with her two mothers during their summer vacation:
“A staff member later told [the child’s mother Cristina] Tartaglia he had witnessed another staff member of the school take the photo down because that person ‘felt my family didn’t belong.’
“Tartaglia and her wife eventually decided to register their daughter at a different school. ‘I was shocked. We no longer felt safe,’ she said.
Tartaglia recently shared her story with members of the Catholic Education and Living our Catholic Values subcommittee. . . [where] she was challenged by a number of trustees after sharing the story of her family photo, who insisted Catholic values could not possibly allow the terms into the code of conduct.
” ‘I’m not even asking them to tolerate me or my family,’ she said. ‘I’m just asking for the same rights as every other family within that board.’ “
Outside the TCDSB, government officials are clear that such discrimination will not be tolerated and Catholic schools should be inclusive. Education Minister Stephen Lecce was “quite clear” that the schools are to adhere to Ontario’s Human Rights Code, which includes full LGBTQ protections. Renu Mandhane, Chief Commissioner of Ontario’s Human Rights Commission, wrote a letter to TCDSB chair Maria Rizzo. In the letter, Mandhane emphasized that “[p]art of the role of a code of conduct is to signal to everyone in the community they will be included and kept safe.” She also highlighted that “excluding particular protected grounds would send a harmful and troubling message.”
But there is strong opposition to adding gender identity, gender expression, marital status, and family status to TCDSB’s non-discrimination protections. Rizzo received several email responses that were quite disturbing. Parents and members of the Toronto Catholic community have equated the revision of the school’s code of conduct to ‘diabolical evil’ as well as a ‘massive betrayal of Jesus Christ and the natural law.’ One email response weighing in on this debate is particularly troubling, “Should we also permit ‘Catholic’ teachers to publicly promote the evil of abortion? How about euthanasia? How about pornography?”
The full school board will consider the proposal at its next meeting on December 5th. They would do well to listen to the voice of Carla DeSantis instead. A Catholic mother of three children educated in TCDSB, DeSantis wrote an open letter in The Star to the trustee representing her ward:
“Conservative Catholics can put their heads in the sand, but the fact remains that there are students (and teachers) of differing gender identity within the Catholic school system, who do have the right to be there and supported. My oldest brother grew up closeted gay and was raised Catholic. He was very unhappy throughout his school years. I firmly believe that if more open supports had been in place within the school system at the time, he would have had a happier experience. It is not our place as Catholics to judge, but to protect and love all of the students.
“On that note, I urge you to vote to include the wording as mandated by the province and not pander to the loud voices of the minority ultraconservative parent group.”
—Brian William Kaufman and Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 6, 2019