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Toronto Catholic school board tries to put religion above human rights

There's a real fear children will become part of this 'gay agenda': superintendent

Credit: Andrea Houston

The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) may soon try to pass amendments to its equity policy that allow religious doctrine to trump the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Among the eight amendments, only two passed at the last board meeting, on May 16. The meeting came to an end before trustees had time to vote on six other proposed amendments that appear to directly target queer students. One proposed amendment states that the Catholic board’s denominational rights “take precedence over human rights protections.”

Another takes aim at gay-straight alliances (GSAs): “The board will approve only clubs which [sic] have goals that are not inconsistent with Catholic faith and the Catholic Church’s moral and doctrinal teachings.”

Patrick Keyes, superintendent of education for the TCDSB, says many parents have a “real fear” that the Ministry of Education’s equity and inclusive education policy is “eroding Catholic values and traditions.”

“There’s some pretty polarizing views that are emerging, and that’s unfortunate,” Keyes says. “There’s a real fear, a fear their children will become part of this ‘gay agenda.’”

Keyes says the remaining six amendments will be debated and voted on in August.

Although the TCDSB’s equity policy passed May 16, the board is now trying to make changes that make it easier for schools to continue to discriminate against queer students.

One amendment that died before it reached the boardroom states that whenever homosexuality is discussed in class, the teacher must reinforce the Catholic Catechism, which says that gay people are “intrinsically disordered.”

“Yes, that was proposed,” Keyes tells Xtra. “It stated that every time a teacher spoke about homosexuality they had to also say to students, ‘By the way, you’re intrinsically disordered.’”

Keyes says the board is under increasing pressure from parents to tighten up the equity policy or reject it entirely.

“For some people, [homosexuality] represents some sort of hedonism, a terrible hedonistic view of life. That’s what the opposition is to this,” he says.

But Keyes says he takes a different view than most of the Catholic parents inundating his office with angry phone calls.

“Not all gay people are the same. That’s like imagining Paris Hilton is the poster child for heterosexualism,” he says. “There’s great diversity among all of us… I’m listening to some people and I’m thinking, ‘How can you believe God is love if that’s what they’re saying to other people?’ Some people really feel the souls of their children will be in danger.”

Since 2009, school boards across Ontario have been reviewing and passing equity policies. Catholic schools adopt a “Catholic template,” a version of Ontario’s equity policy that’s written specifically for English Catholic boards by the Ontario Education Services Corporation.

The TCDSB was the last school board in Ontario to pass its equity policy.

The amendments make subtle tweaks to the language of the policy that could have big changes in the classroom. For example, amendment number four states that “every person within the Catholic school community is entitled to a respectful, positive and Christ-centred school climate where the learning and working environment is free from all forms of discrimination and harassment.”

That may change to “the board has an obligation to ensure an individual’s freedom to express Catholic moral principles regarding sexuality and marriage without fear of recrimination.”

At an April 27 TCDSB meeting at Our Lady of Lourdes Public School on Sherbourne St, parents told the board that GSAs “indoctrinate” and “confuse” youth by “normalizing” a “dangerous lifestyle.” Many others demanded that any reference to “sexual orientation” be removed from the equity policy. Some argued that allowing a GSA would open the door to “sexual promiscuity and disease.”

In January, the Halton Catholic District School Board passed its policy only after “sexual orientation” was removed as something that shouldn’t be discriminated against, like race, disability or religion. Trustees also slapped on a blanket ban on GSAs, Xtra revealed. That ban was later lifted in the face of international outrage.

Then, in March, Xtra told the story of a group of students at St Joseph Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga who were rejected in their bid for a GSA. Since going public, the students have faced vicious bullying in class and online. Led by 16-year-old Leanne Iskander, the group is now galvanizing support across the province, inviting other students to join them in the Pride parade under the banner of the newly formed Catholic Students for GSAs.