03/25/2013 12:09 EDT | Updated 05/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Why Do We Still Allow Religious Schools to Bully Gay Kids?


A story is recycling itself. A provincial legislature attempts to make its schools safer and more inclusive, and religious individuals claim that the sky is falling and their freedoms are being eroded.

It is a seemingly never-ending struggle about how to protect all of God's children from people who believe that doing so unduly infringes on their ability to follow that same God's teachings.

Last year the challenge was in Ontario, where the province's Catholic schools were required to implement an anti-bullying strategy that included gay-straight alliances. This present debate in Manitoba is similar, but greater. Since Manitoba's religious schools receive over 50 per cent of their funding from the province, they are all being mandated to comply with the proposed legislation: Bill 18 -- The Public Schools Amendment Act (Safe and Inclusive Schools).

Stirring up the debate in Manitoba is whether or not the province can mandate all schools to, in the words of the bill, "accommodate pupils who want to establish and lead activities and organizations that promote the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientations and gender identities; and use the name "gay-straight alliance" or any other name that is consistent with the promotion of a positive school environment that is inclusive and accepting of all pupils."

It seems like a benign request. As it turns out, it is anything but.

Religious leaders all throughout Manitoba are speaking out. In Steinbach, Manitoba the city council has passed a resolution asking the province to reconsider the bill because it will infringe on freedom of religion and "undermine their ability to uphold their faith perspective." Winnipeg's Rabbi Avrohom Altein has written to the Premier arguing that these requirements are akin to students rallying around a "right to eat pork" in an orthodox Jewish school.

It's worth pointing out that religious leaders aren't the only ones speaking out. Federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, whose Manitoba riding includes Steinbach, has sent a letter to constituents opposing the bill saying it poses an "unconstitutional infringement upon the freedom of religion."

One wonders why this federal MP -- who in his opposition to same-sex marriage argued it would lead to polygamy -- has decided to use his position and stature as a federal Member of Parliament to speak out on a provincial matter.

The Minister aside, the concerns over an erosion of freedom of religion cannot be ignored. Religious freedom, for all, is part of what makes Canada a bastion of democratic and civic freedoms. But anyone who uses the language of rights to advance a cause cannot be dismissive of other rights.

Our rights cannot exist in a vacuum, isolated from the reality around them. Rights engage with other rights. Not only does our Charter have a built-in provision to permit the limiting of rights in certain situations, but also, the transactional nature of our public lives dictates that different rights will come into contact other rights. Those who oppose Bill 18 should read the Charter in its entirety; it doesn't stop at freedom of religion, nor is there a hierarchy of rights.

In this regard, the advocates of religious freedom are unable to appreciate the full context of this issue and as a result, keep falling short. Legislators, parents, and students who are trying to root out bullying and make schools a place where all students can feel comfortable (is this too much to ask for?) are not trying to undermine religious freedom. No bill or municipal ordinance, as far as I can tell, says that all private-religious schools, that don't receive a majority of their funding from public funds, must "accommodate" students. No one is proposing that different faiths tone down the intolerance that so many of them preach, even in publicly funded schools. Show me one example of a religious institution being curbed because it teaches texts that refer to homosexuality as an abomination, or that woman's testimony in court is worth less than a man's.

This subject is becoming tiresome. Religion is not under attack, only narrow-mindedness is. And I worry that the narrow-mindedness in some corners of religion will only further cement its isolation and irrelevance in our civic space, an unfortunate outcome.

Our society is transforming. Our ability to empathize has expanded and we are re-imagining what it means to be compassionate. A determination to be better is leading us across new bridges that even five years ago were unimaginable. If only Amanda Todd and Jamie Hubely could see us now.

These are changes that all Canadians should be proud of, and all Canadians, including devout Canadians, have a constructive role to play in how we bring about these changes. It's sad that an increasingly small but vocal minority sees this as regression, when in fact it really is one of the truest forms of our society's advancement.

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