On May 3, 2012, Ontario's Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act, 2011 (which I discussed in a previous Slaw blog post), passed second reading and was referred to the Standing Committee on Social Policy. During committee hearings, the government heard loud and clear that it is important that students who want to establish student-led, single-issue groups, like gay-straight alliances in their schools should be supported and allowed to do so. The government also heard that students should be allowed to call these groups specifically "Gay-Straight Alliances" or other similar names. Hence, the committee made several amendments to Bill 13 as follows:
- Neither the board nor the principal shall refuse to allow a pupil to use the name gay-straight alliance or a similar name
- The name of an activity or organization must be consistent with the promotion of a positive school climate that is inclusive and accepting of all pupils
- All boards shall comply with this section in a way that does not adversely affect any right of a pupil guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
This despite the fact that the government initially told Catholic trustees that they could determine the name for new anti-homophobia student clubs called for in the legislation.
This has angered some Christians, among them Evangelical and Catholic groups as well as their leaders, who feel that this Bill would force them to allow clubs with the name “Gay-Straight Alliance” in their schools. They feel accepting such a premise violates their beliefs, Charter rights and religious freedom.
It is a bigger issue for Ontario's Catholic school boards since they are publicly funded. The boards receive about 33 percent of the province's $24-billion annual education budget.
It is important to note that the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association supports the amendments.
So what is the big issue with a name? The use of the word "gay"!
The Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association (OCSTA) called the word gay "a distraction" and said anti-bullying legislation is supposed to protect all students, not just those who are picked on because of their sexual orientation.
We don't want to focus on the name, said OCSTA president Marino Gazzola.
We want to focus on the content and what the groups are all about. These are externally developed groups that do not necessarily reflect the unique values of our students.
The Catholic school board wanted to call the new anti-bullying groups “Respecting Differences” clubs.
A constitutional challenge may ensue if the legislation is passed.
Bill 13 gets it right that students should not be stopped by schools (whether Catholic or not) from calling their clubs “Gay-Straight Alliances,” if they deal with bullying of gay students and issues of homophobia.
It is beyond me why a school board, trustee, teacher or principal would want to prevent their students from creating and participating in a group that is designed to provide support for group members. Will a school-supervised "Respecting Differences" club offer the same support and comfort to the student-led "alliance"? What do the Catholic school boards have to gain by prohibiting students from selecting the name they want, using the language of their choosing?
Surely, one of the primary roles of the school board and its representatives is to protect students. In this case, those opposed to gay-straight alliances are failing in that duty. By labouring over the use of an inoffensive word in the name of a student club and offering condescending comments suggesting students are under the influence of activist groups and cannot both have school spirit and also support GSAs, the school boards are setting a poor example of respect for others and sending conflicting messages about where the school board stands on helping students find support among their peers.
However, I do have a problem with the name “Gay-Straight Alliances” being part of the Bill and indirectly making the focus of the anti-bullying Bill a gay, lesbian and transgendered issue. Does the law need to name GSAs, specifically? Bill 13 offers protection from all types of bullying. By singling out sexual orientation for special treatment, will other parts be ignored? For simplicity's sake, too; will the government have to amend the law any time a controversy arises over the name of a school club? Surely general language could have served just as well.
Whether or not Bill 13 passes, this issue will not likely go away soon. The Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association clearly doesn't want to support GSAs and the government is clearly insisting that they do.