12/10/2014 06:19 EST | Updated 02/09/2015 05:59 EST

Having Rights Does Not Mean the Privilege to Discriminate

Holger Mette via Getty Images

Where did Alberta's Bill 10 about gay-straight alliances (GSAs) go so wrong? Here's a thought: perhaps because the concept of rights was too often confused with privilege. Perhaps people and governments need to be honest that they are actually talking about privilege when mentioning "rights."

Privilege is a special entitlement that one groups gets that others do not. It is evoked to gain power over another person or group. Privileges are not rights. Rights are inherent freedoms that all people have, equally. Privileges are often socially assumed, but fall apart when contrasted against constitutional rights. The civil rights gains of the 1950s and 1960s were based on court decisions noting that rights are enjoyed by all, and that privileges associated with segregation and discrimination have no legal standing.

In the debate of Bill 10, parental rights advocates argued they had the right to tell schools what to say, and what not to say, to their children regarding sexual orientation, or to opt-out of school discussions altogether. In the Alberta Home School Association's letter to Minister Dirks and the Premier about GSAs, one of the AHSA's key concerns is a fear of a loss of "authority" and "forcing agreement with any law" as a form of totalitarianism.

The AHSA's description of the request for authority is a clear description of privilege and power over school officials, children, and law - it is not a description of rights. Compliance with rule of law in Canada is clearly a part of the Canadian constitution, it is not totalitarianism. Rule of law is the basis of all high functioning democracies, it binds us all together and helps us live well together.

The constitution is actually silent on direct statements of parental rights. As well, nowhere does the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms suggest any group has the privilege to discrimination against another group. However, various Alberta laws do suggest schools and parents are responsible to protect their children from abuse and bullying.

Religious school advocates argued they had the right to decline GSAs in their schools. In fact, the Calgary Sun reported, "[Catholic Schools] are happy with [proposed] provincial legislation giving them the ability to reject student-desired gay-straight alliances (GSAs)." Again this is a description of privilege and power over children, not a description of any fundamental freedom. The Alberta Act of 1905 ensures Catholic schools can operate in Alberta. It, of course, is completely silent on GSAs in schools and does not state is has the privilege to discriminate against others. Just as the Alberta Act states "no discrimination against schools of any class" should occur, no discrimination of any of its children should occur. Catholic or other religious schools are not exempt from complying with the laws of Canada, including the charter of rights and freedoms.

Rights are normative rules such as freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of belief. Rights do not suggest they are enjoyed by just some groups of people, under some conditions, and no one has more rights than anyone else. Nor do rights suggest that one individual has the power to restrict the rights of another. Privilege assumes some people enjoy more rights, under some conditions, and that some laws apply or do not.

The flip side of rights are responsibilities. We have the ethical and legal responsibility to try to live well together. It is the basis of rule of law in Canada. Child protection laws in every province of Canada suggest that professionals, teachers, and religious leaders have an obligation to report any form of abuse occurring against children. This includes verbal and emotional abuse.

Bullying and discriminating against gay and lesbian youth in schools is a form of emotional abuse. Given this, it is not surprising, but completely horrifying, that LGBTQ student have a far great likelihood of suicide, attempted suicide, homelessness, and so on.

Parents, teachers, trustees, religious leaders, and political leaders have a special responsibility to protect children from abuse, including bullying. We know that GSAs help greatly in this regard. No one has the privilege or right to perpetuate or facilitate emotional abuse against a vulnerable group of children. The consequences for doing so are immense. It is morally and ethically wrong.

People can certainly believe what they wish and even express it, including that others are deserving of their contempt; that is our freedom. But that belief does not extend to the privilege of evoking discrimination against another human being, or worse yet of empowering the abuse of another. That is where all of our actions are justifiably restricted.

It is time we stopped talking about rights and be honest when we are talking about privilege. No one has the privilege to discriminate against another, even religious leaders. It is not the basis for creating a society that lives well together.

Kelly Ernst is the Principal Consultant for The Strategic Intelligence Alliance and President of the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association.