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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ontario Catholic schools revisit gay groups ban

By Sarah Boesveld -

An Ontario Catholic school board will revisit a policy that bars gay-straight alliance groups, enacted under pressure from Catholic bishops but which has since provoked international criticism.
Gay rights supporters said Monday that the Halton District Catholic School Board's ban on the gay rights groups, which try to educate and forge a common understanding among gay and straight teens, is ill-advised and antiquated.
The ban -- added to the board's Equity and Inclusive Education policy during one of the final meetings before a newly elected board took the helm -- has received international attention, including criticism from gay celebrity blogger Perez Hilton.
Board chairperson Alice Anne LeMay said Monday the ban was enacted as the board created an equity and inclusive education policy, as required by new equity legislation from the Ontario Ministry of Education.
"When we worked through it and it was passed on Nov. 16, some things were added about the exclusion of certain groups, particularly a [gay-straight alliance] group and that's the way it was passed," she said. (Ms. LeMay was forced to apologize Monday for saying earlier that gay alliances, like "Nazi groups," would not be allowed in Halton's Catholic schools because they "don't fall within the teachings of the Catholic church.")
The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario sent a letter to all Catholic school boards suggesting that the ministry-proposed gay-straight alliance groups might be too premature for high school students, and that alternative forms of support should be offered to promote healthy relationships.
Trustee Anthony Danko suggested they listen to the bishops, Ms. LeMay said. The board voted eight to one in favour, with two abstaining.
Members of the newly elected board have individually vowed to battle the ban, including Paul Marai, the board's first openly gay trustee. The 22-year-old says he grew up in Halton Catholic schools and was never taught to sit idly by while another student was bullied for being gay. That said, telling students they can't have a specific kind of group that addresses homophobia and gay rights sends a discordant message-- and he plans to raise the issue at Tuesday evening's policy meeting.
"Students don't react well to bans in the first place," he said. "Unfortunately by banning [gay-straight alliances], they made it a bigger issue."
The Halton Catholic District School Board's director of education Michael Pautler said Monday the board was already slated to review the issue.
"Clearly this advanced that timeline," he said.
Gay-straight alliances have been subject to state-wide bans in the United States and many school boards there have tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to ban the groups, said James Chamberlain, the British Columbiabased spokesperson for the Pride Education Network, a gay advocacy group.
"We've never heard of it happening across Canada, with a public board or a Catholic one," he said. "The purpose of GSA clubs is for gay and straight youth to come together and talk about homophobia and for them to be supported."
Mr. Chamberlain has worked with Catholic teachers in Northern Ontario who say they fold religious teachings into their anti-homophobia lessons by stressing that the Catholic faith is based on acceptance of all people, a point echoed by James Ryan, the president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association.
"The hatred of anyone is a sin and the hatred of anyone in the LGBT community is a sin," he said. "Catholic schools are every bit opposed to homophobia as non-Catholic schools are."
The Ontario Ministry of Education did recommend gay-straight alliance groups as one way students can combat discrimination in schools, said Erin Moroz, director of communications for the Minister of Education, Leona Dombrowksky. But local school boards do indeed have the right to amend them, so long as they offer other forms of support, she said.
Meanwhile, gay-rights advocates have vowed to lobby for a change in the policy. The next board meeting is Jan. 17.


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