The minister of education tops a list of politicians, of every political stripe, who refuse to speak to Xtra on the record about our investigation into gay-straight alliances (GSA) in Ontario Catholic school boards.

Progressive conservative education critic Elizabeth Witmer has joined the NDP's Rosario Marchese and Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky in not speaking with Xtra.

The Green Party of Ontario’s education critic, Matt Richter, also an elementary school teacher, did speak to Xtra. He says his party’s position is that Ontario should work toward one public school system. “We’re really concerned that the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario are heavily influencing the curriculum and policies that receive public funding,” he says. “In essence they are discriminating.”

On Feb 11, Xtra revealed that gay clubs are prohibited at all Ontario Catholic schools, by decree of the bishop. Catholic bishops are the final authority for all policy and curriculum used in the publicly funded Catholic school system. Much of the discrimination comes from the Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation, the primary document instructing schools on homosexuality. It teaches that "gay" is not an identity, gay sex is “immoral” and gays must live a life of “chastity.”

In a time when gay students are committing suicide because of anti-gay bullying, Richter says, the Catholic schools are taking a “dangerous and scary” position. “For a school board to send the message that gay youth are not included is simply ridiculous,” he says.

Since breaking the news in January that the Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB) banned GSAs, Xtra has called Dombrowsky for comment several times. Ministry of education spokesperson Gary Wheeler insists he is passing on Xtra’s messages.

So why the silence from Dombrowsky, a former Catholic school trustee? “I did point out that this is a rather important issue,” Wheeler tells Xtra. “I always pass on your messages.”

Xtra also tried to get in touch with former education minister Kathleen Wynne, who is openly gay. But she has not called back, either.

Linda Williamson, director of communications for the Ontario ombudsman, tells Xtra that her office doesn’t handle education issues.

But while politicians are staying silent, the issue has the public and mainstream media talking. Some religious leaders are even speaking out against funding for Catholic schools.

Metropolitan Community Church pastor Brent Hawkes told Xtra that it’s time to seriously talk about defunding Catholic schools. Hawkes admits the constitutional right to freedom of religion continuously comes in conflict with human rights laws. “When freedom of religion conflicts with equality rights, equality rights must win,” he says.

The addition of freedom of religion into the Human Rights Code was intended to ensure there was “freedom of worship,” Hawkes says. “It was a means to protect groups from having the state interfere with their right to worship.”

“It was never intended to move beyond that,” he says. “It was never intended to be used as a way to deny rights to others or to demand things from others.”

Hawkes says Catholic schools are twisting the constitutional guarantee for a different purpose. “Some folks feel the whole ‘freedom of religion thing’ has gradually expanded way beyond its original intent. It was not meant to be used as a tool to go out into society and demand all these other accommodations.”

“Now we see the religious right trying to use freedom of religion to deny equality rights to gays and lesbians. We have to be very vigilant to be back in the courts, in ways that we haven’t been for a while, to ensure our rights we have are protected because they can be so easily undermined under the guise of freedom of religion.”

Hawkes says that publicly funded agencies, such as Ontario Catholic school boards, must obey public policy. “If you receive public funds, you must abide by public policy. The public gets this. I think this issue of Catholic school boards and GSAs is raising an important point. It’s really time that this province looked at [the problems with] having a religious-based school system. It’s really time to rethink that. New Brunswick has changed it. Newfoundland has changed it, even Quebec.”

Hawkes notes the United Nations has already found Canada in violation of human rights laws by allowing Catholic faith-based schools but not other faiths. “It’s a very dangerous precedent for the gay and lesbian community, and particularly women, to allow faith-based schools. When people are raised in the public system they are exposed to other views and sexual orientations. The Catholic system in general does a good job teaching tolerance, but I’m not sure other faith-based schools would do that.”

“As a society we need to decide what the boundaries on freedom of religion are,” Hawkes adds.

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