Even if the Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB) votes to strike down the current policy that bans gay-straight alliances (GSA) on Jan 18, its equity policy may still be in violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Reacting to public pressure, the HCDSB will take another look at its controversial equity and inclusive education policy, which includes a blanket ban on GSAs, following a policy committee meeting Jan 11 in Burlington.
Board chair Alice Anne LeMay came under fire when she justified the board’s ban on GSAs by saying the schools “don’t have Nazi groups either” in an Xtra story Jan 6. She says she is undecided on where she stands on rescinding the policy.
“I have received just as many emails from the community in favour of keeping the current policy,” LeMay told the board before the motion passed in a 6-2 vote.
The recommendation is not final. The current policy and ban are still in effect at HCDSB. Trustees will debate the issue and cast their votes at the next regular board meeting Jan 18. If trustees vote to scrap the policy, the original “template” policy goes into effect. The template is a version of Ontario’s equity and inclusive education policy that’s written specifically for English Catholic boards by the Ontario Education Services Corporation.
“This is starting to become an issue that does not only pertain to the Halton Catholic District School Board,” says teacher/activist Sarah Kelly, a master’s of education student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) who started the Facebook page “Fight the Halton Catholic Board’s ban on Gay Straight Alliances” and championed the petition.
The template states that the policy “recognizes and eliminates biases related to race, class ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, family status, religion and linguistic differences as well as socio-economic factors.”
If the HCDCB passes the policy without editing any language, Kelly says the board is likely safe.
“I would be happy with this template as a starting point,” she says. “But if they remove sexual orientation or gender, like they did before, they could be in violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code.
“But I’m not comfortable leaving the policy as the template. There are continuous references throughout the document that the policy must not go against Catholic doctrine. It’s very ambiguous.”
The policy changes were made following a letter from Bishop Paul-Andre Durocher, chair of the Education Commission of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario. He writes that gay-straight alliance clubs imply a self-identification with sexual orientation that is often premature among high school students.
So Kelly wants to know how many other Catholic boards in Ontario also quietly passed equity policies only after deleting “gender and sexual orientation” from the document.
Catholic boards can change language in the policy “in accordance with the denominational rights afforded to the Catholic school system.”
“A lot of boards in Ontario have adopted the template to use as their policy,” John Langill, superintendent of education for the HCDSB, told Xtra. Langill is responsible for policy decisions at the board. “Nothing has been changed yet. Between now and next Tuesday anything can happen. Right now, nothing has changed.”
And if the decision is up to trustee Jane Michael, the policy and GSA ban will stay put. She says GSAs promote “a homosexual lifestyle that is not in accordance with the Catholic Church.”
Michael told Xtra she will not support the motion to scrap the policy and GSA ban. She says she believes gay-straight alliances are harmful because they encourage “tendencies” that are against the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Asked why gay students should not be permitted to form a club, Michael says, “Why can’t heterosexual students have a club? I don’t think sex clubs should be in school.”
Sex clubs? What does she think happens at a GSA?
“I’ve never been to a GSA,” she says, adding that the groups are damaging. “They force people to be labelled as gay, and that could be detrimental to those people at that school.”
And she wasn’t alone. Other trustees also voiced opposition to changing the policy and lifting the ban.
Halton trustee Ed Viana surprised and confused the gallery when he told the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
“I am holding up our principles of the Catholic Church, of Catholic society,” Viana told Xtra, adding that if gays find his story offensive, “that’s just the way it is. I call a spade a spade.”
He refused to tell Xtra how he plans to vote.
Openly gay trustee Paul Marai told trustees this issue is damaging the reputation of the board. When Marai pressed LeMay to make a decision on the GSA ban, LeMay shut him down, saying, “We have already heard what you have to say.”
Marai also told Xtra that passing the revised policy was one of the last items from the previous board of trustees. “It was during a lame-duck board,” he says.
If the board scraps the current policy on Jan 18, trustees can take as much time as they need to create a new policy “that is not in conflict with Catholic Church teachings,” Langill says. As long as the board has a template policy, the Ministry of Education is satisfied.
Michael says she would like to see the board make its decision quickly on this because defunding Catholic schools is already being discussed as a possible election issue in Ontario.
“Time is of the essence on this,” she says.
Read more of Xtra’s coverage on the Halton Catholic District School Board’s ban: