3 min

Respect for bigots

We need to be careful in our political strategies.

Credit: Xtra files

A public school in Surrey, BC, has tried to ban three books – Belinda’s Bouquet, Asha’s Mums and One Dad, Two Dads – because they depict same sex families. The case is about to be heard by the Supreme Court Of Canada.

And just outside Toronto, the Durham Catholic school board is refusing to let 17-year-old Marc Hall go to the prom with his boyfriend. The case is before an Ontario court.

What do these cases have in common? The explosive mix of religion, homosexuality and schools.

In Surrey, a group of conservative religious parents pressured the school board to remove the books because they considered the themes to be offensive and objectionable.

In Durham, the school board is refusing to allow the student to bring his boyfriend because homosexuality is against the teachings of the Catholic Church.

In both, religion is pitted against equality. Religious beliefs about homosexuality clash with secular beliefs about equality rights for gay men and lesbians. In both, gay folks are arguing that equality should trump religious freedom.

It’s easy to be against book banning. And it is remarkably easy to support the right of a kid to go to his high school prom (in fact, it’s so easy that politicians are falling over themselves to support Marc Hall).

But the underlying conflict is actually a bit harder than it may appear.

On one hand, gay men and lesbians have the right to be free from discrimination. And there is no doubt that both of these cases involve discrimination against gay folks. The books in Surrey were banned because of their gay themes. The Durham kid is not allowed to bring his gay date to the prom. This is discrimination, clear and simple.

But both also involve religious freedoms. Both involve firmly held religious beliefs of religious folks. And they believe that homosexuality is a sin.

It’s easy to respect the freedoms of those you agree with. But if you really believe in freedom, then you have to be prepared to respect the freedoms of the folks that you don’t agree with.

We should be very careful before we start arguing that our rights to equality should trump their rights to religious liberty. The equality versus liberty game is a dangerous one – particularly for gay folks. Our courts are only too willing to let equality trump liberty. It means that struggles for sexual freedoms often lose to claims that someone’s equality rights are at stake. It’s a game that we often lose. In the obscenity context, for example, Little Sister’s lost its challenge to strike down the law that allows Canada Customs to censor books at the border. When it comes to obscenity law, the prevention of harm and the promotion of equality for women is more important to the courts than sexual freedom.

None of this means that we should just roll over on these cases. It just means that we need to be careful in our political strategies.

In Surrey, it is a public school, and public schools are supposed to be secular. While the parents are entitled to their religious views, it is not a place where it is appropriate to impose those views on others.

But, in Durham, the conflict is a little harder. It’s a Catholic school, not a secular school. And Catholic schools are perfectly entitled to teach Catholic doctrine. And like it or not, Catholic doctrine just doesn’t think very highly of homosexuality.

I admire Marc Hall for putting up a good fight. And like so many others, I think he should be able to go to his prom. But it’s not what I think, or what Allan Rock thinks, or what Egale Canada thinks, that’s important. Changing religious beliefs and practices doesn’t come from the outside. It comes from within. And that is why Marc’s fight is such an interesting one. Marc is being supported by his friends and fellow students. Even some parents and teachers are supporting him. This is a marker of change from those on the inside – those who believe in the doctrines of the Catholic church, but think that it’s time for it to drag its views on homosexuality into the 20th, never mind the 21st, century.

The right to religious freedom requires that religious folks have the right to believe what they believe in. For better or worse, freedom includes the right to believe in stupid, homophobic things. But, what we are seeing with Mark’s battle to go to the prom is a struggle over what those religious folks actually believe in. It’s a sign that things do change, and that sometimes they are best changed from within.

Even if Marc loses in court, he has already won.