Gay-straight alliance ban lifted

On January 18, the Halton Catholic District School Board voted to strike down a ban on gay-straight alliances in schools. After criticism from media and various action groups, the board’s Policy Development Committee recommended the ban be overturned.

The ban, along with policy amendments to adjust curriculum on healthy sexuality, had been passed in a board meeting on November 2, 2010. Board members agreed that gay-straight alliance groups promote unhealthy tendencies and an unacceptable lifestyle.

Earlier in the year, the Assembly of the Catholic Bishops of Ontario, the organization that makes recommendations based on religious doctrine to Catholic school boards in Ontario, advised the HCDSB that gay-straight alliance groups enforce self-identification and violate the privacy of homosexual students.

“I’ve never been to a GSA,” said board trustee Jane Michael. “They force people to be labelled as gay, and that could be detrimental to those people at that school.”

The ACBO argues that to allow gay-straight alliance groups would be to encourage a sexual orientation that is “premature”. Catholic school board policies permit romantic relationships between heterosexual couples as they allow students to develop toward healthy marriages. In contrast, secondary school students are considered too young to pursue homosexual relationships.

“The church teachings teach our children to accept everyone, whether they’re gay or lesbian, poor, black, white, whatever,” said Nancy Kirby, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association. “But the church teaching also says that we don’t condone the actions of gays and lesbians.” Quite the conundrum.

Sarah Kelly, a master’s of teaching student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, started a Facebook group, “Fight the Halton Catholic Board’s ban on Gay Straight Alliances”. In two weeks, the online petition has generated 3,000 signatures.

“In particular, when it comes to matters of faith and morality, the aforementioned denominational rights accorded to Catholic schools in Ontario would supersede Ministry of Education proposed curriculum content,” said Lou Piovesan, the general secretary of the ACBO. “Accordingly, if some content (related to faith and morality matters) is indeed determined to be at variance with those principles, it would not be endorsed for use in Catholic schools.”

This is the second time this year that Catholic doctrine has conflicted with policies of equity and safety in Ontario schools. Last year, Catholic schools boards warned that providing the free HPV vaccine would promote promiscuity.

“That’s the rights of the Catholic schools,” said Alice Anne LeMay, the board chair. “We have denominational rights and our rights say we will not do anything against magisterial of the Catholic Church.”

After nearly two weeks of public scrutiny and media attention, the ban was overturned in a vote of 6-2. The board meeting was attended by many who opposed the ban, including members of the Canadian Civil Liberties Union.

“As a new trustee, I must represent the big picture, which means all students must be able to attend school without fear,” said trustee John Mark Rowe.

Jane Michael, a new trustee, one of the two that voted against lifting the ban, argued that Catholic doctrine takes precedence over homosexual lifestyle.

The HCDSB insists that trustees will always act in the best interest of the students. On the HCDSB website, officials commented in a press release that, despite the ban, Catholic schools in the Halton region uphold values that promote safety and acceptance of all students.