02/25/2013 03:21 EST | Updated 04/27/2013 05:12 EDT

Manitoba's education minister not prepared to compromise on proposed bully law

WINNIPEG - Battle lines are being drawn in Manitoba over a proposed anti-bullying law that would force schools to accommodate gay and lesbian student groups.

While some religious schools say Bill 18 is a violation of religious freedom, the province's education minister said Monday the personal rights of students take precedence.

"There will be no compromise on that. We feel strongly that all students deserve to be in a safe and caring learning environment," Nancy Allan said.

Allan's comments came one day after 1,300 people packed Steinbach Christian High School, southeast of Winnipeg, to discuss the proposed legislation. Opponents have already started a letter-writing campaign to press legislature members to amend or drop the bill.

Modelled partly on similar anti-bullying legislation in Ontario, the bill would require schools to accommodate student groups and activities that promote equality based on gender, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. The proposed law specifically would require schools to allow students to set up "gay-straight alliance" groups if they wanted.

That provision is seen by some religious schools as running contrary to their teachings.

"For some faith communities, that's how they're perceiving it," said Robert Praznik, chair of the Manitoba Federation of Independent Schools.

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives say they've heard concerns from Christians, Sikhs and other faiths.

"It's the principle of removing the discretion for faith-based independent schools and for community values to be respected," Tory education critic Kelvin Goertzen said.

The Ontario bill led to a public spat last year between then-premier Dalton McGuinty and Thomas Cardinal Collins, Catholic Archbishop of Toronto. The controversy in Manitoba is likely to come to a head this spring when the bill goes to public hearings.

The Tories say allowance for gay-straight alliance groups is not their only concern with the bill. They say the definition of bullying in the proposal is so vague that any child could be punished. Actions that could harm a student's "feelings" qualify as bullying under one section of the proposed law.

"It's not going to be enforceable," Goertzen said.

"Those concerns have been raised to me by the principals in the schools. They're the ones saying, 'How are we going to determine what is bullying and what isn't?'"

Goertzen pointed to North Dakota's anti-bullying law, which defines bullying as something that places a student in reasonable fear of harm.

Allan, however, stands by the definition that includes hurt feelings.

"We believe that there are all kinds of harassment issues, name-calling, those kinds of incidents that occur in schools, and we believe that it's absolutely necessary to be in the definition."