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Gay-Straight Alliances in Catholic Schools: A Matter of Rights

Those who oppose rights for gays will claim religious freedom and they are, in fact, entitled to it. Ultimately the question of gay-straight alliances in Catholic schools is not about religion or sexuality. It is about the right to feel safe in publicly-funded schools and in their own skin.

On Aug. 31 of this year I attended a meeting of the Toronto Catholic School Board. At issue was the question of whether or not Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) would be allowed to exist in Ontario's Catholic Schools. I highly recommend that all Canadians who haven't been to one of these give it a try. Nowhere else will you find so much discussion of dogma and scripture within a public Canadian political body. For those of you who don't know, funding for Catholic schools is constitutionally enshrined in Canada. This was done to secure the political support of Ontario's large Catholic minority for Confederation in 1867.

On the night of the meeting, the rhetoric coming from the anti-gay side was both homophobic and not at all in keeping with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It was also not anything close to what the people of Toronto, Ontario or Canada would find acceptable from officials in any other government institution. There were several statements to the effect that Ontario's, publicly funded, Catholic schools should be taking direction from the Pope and not the government of Ontario or even local clergy. This is a Pope, in case you've forgotten, who told Africans that condoms contribute to the AIDS crisis, has been openly homophobic, deeply critical of other faiths, and opposes a woman's right to choose, yet has never fully responded to what appears to be a history of systemic child abuse within the Church.

Over the course of the night, which Andrea Houston has done an amazing job of detailing for Xtra, there were several votes, primarily on proposed amendments. When the anti-gay side lost a vote, homophobia rapidly turned to hysteria. Democratically-elected Catholic School Board members were accused of being anti-Catholic and even "communist" for taking the side of students and the side of tolerance.

Ultimately, of course, those who oppose rights for gays will claim religious freedom and they are, in fact, entitled to it. However there is no age at which Charter rights become effective. Minorities are, for example, protected from discrimination at any age. Girls in Ontario schools, public or religious, cannot be discriminated against at any age. Ultimately the question of GSA's in Catholic schools is not about religion or sexuality. It is about whether or not students in publicly-funded Ontario schools have a right to feel safe and comfortable in their schools and in their own skin. It is about whether or not high school students have a right to free speech and free assembly.

Ultimately it may be time to revisit decisions made, for political expediency, in 1867 and contemplate whether or not Ontario should continue to fund a single religious denomination. Ontario is now a diverse, multicultural province and no other religious group receives this kind of treatment or public funding. If the Catholic School Board wants to take instruction from the Vatican rather than the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the Government of Ontario we may need to reconsider in fairly short order. That is not the issue for today though.

The push for GSAs in Catholic Schools is not, as critics would have you believe, being driven by some international homosexual conspiracy. Students are driving it and those students need our support. I hope that all Torontonians, of good conscience, will turn up at the next Catholic School Board meeting and stand with these brave kids who are fighting for their basic rights. I hope that individuals will also take the time to contact the Catholic School Board and the candidates running for the Provincial Parliament in their ridings and express their support for protecting the Charter rights of students, particularly within publicly funded institutions. High school is a difficult time, particularly for young people who, for any reason, are labeled as different. Ontarians should not support making those years any more difficult or making students feel less included at taxpayer's expense.

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