On Sept 1, the principal at St Joseph Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga essentially upheld a ban on gay-straight alliances (GSA) in all Catholic schools, defying the provincial Liberal government by ignoring its promise that students in all Ontario schools will have the option to form “LGBT support groups.”

The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board goes even further, censoring the word gay, banning the rainbow flag, threatening students who engage in human rights advocacy and teaching that being gay is “immoral” and “sinful.”

While Catholic school boards cling to a constitutional loophole, students across Ontario say the Catholic Church’s religious dogma on homosexuality is a root cause of bullying. To this educators turn their backs, or become bullies themselves.

The bishops, who wrote the Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation — the guidelines for educators — continue to act as shepherds, filtering the message to ensure Catholic doctrine is upheld, even if that dogma is intrinsically discriminatory. Regardless of whether the religion condemns homosexuality and forbids gay sex, queer students have a right to safe and supportive schools.

It is becoming more and more challenging for the Catholic Church to reconcile its position on sex and marriage as society moves progressively forward. Perhaps administrators of Ontario’s Catholic schools secretly want to be compelled by the province to allow GSAs as this would relieve them of the responsibility of having to choose between their obligations to the church and their obligations to the state.

Whatever the case, this is not an acceptable or sustainable state of affairs. Education that is funded with tax dollars must uphold the highest standards of safety, acceptance, inclusivity and progress. And as the Oct 6 provincial election approaches, so does an opportunity for Ontario to change course on the matter of public funding for Catholic schools.

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has already come out in support of Catholic schools. In doing so, he has thrown down the gauntlet, putting the issue of funding for faith-based schools once again front and centre for the upcoming election.

The NDP has promised that if it forms a government, students will be allowed to start GSAs but has stopped short of describing consequences for Catholic school boards that don’t comply. The only party that promises outright to amalgamate public and separate school systems into one secular system, as most other provinces and territories have done, is the Green Party.

Ontario’s Ministry of Education, the governmental body that wrote the equity and inclusive education policy that the Catholic school boards have dismissed so flagrantly, is also charged to enforce the rules. The Liberal government keeps saying that it supports students but remains ineffective. And Minister of Education (and former Catholic school trustee) Leona Dombrowsky has stayed largely silent.

How does the Ministry of Education plan to mandate school boards across the province to allow “LGBT support groups” while facing the resistance that will inevitably come from social and moral conservatives? And what exactly is an LGBT support group, anyway? By not allowing students to use the word gay, the government continues to support a ban.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, activists, lawyers and politicians are strategizing. Some are devising ways to keep the story out of the public discourse until after the election. But social media is already humming with debate about the morality of public funding for religious schools. And encouragingly, mainstream media is not letting the story drift away. Through all this, voters in Ontario should not lose sight of what started this discussion in this election: the prerogative for queer youth to start GSAs in their own schools.

Over the next several weeks, Xtra is tracing the history of Catholic-school funding in Ontario, examining how Catholic schools came to be funded from the public purse, looking at how religious education affects students in Catholic schools today, and analyze]ing how best to effect positive change.
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