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Catholic teachers support Ontario’s gay-straight alliance initiative

Taechun Menns, left, and Leanne Iskander, fought to start a gay-straight alliance group at at St Joseph's Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga.

Andrea Houston/Andrea Houston/Xtra

Catholic teachers in Ontario are calling on school administrators to embrace the province's new anti-bullying legislation allowing students to form gay-straight alliances, even as pro-life activists push for a constitutional challenge.

Kevin O'Dwyer, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, said his 43,000 members welcome the legislation, which passed third and final reading on Tuesday, because it allows schools to protect students from homophobia and other forms of discrimination.

"I think it's going to be a positive experience for students to engage those clubs, whatever name they choose," Mr. O'Dwyer said in an interview.

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He is hoping that Catholic school trustees can overcome their objections to legislation that they argue contradicts church doctrine condemning homosexual activity.

John Del Grande, a trustee with the Toronto Catholic District School Board, said how administrators respond now that the legislation is set to become law depends on how it gets implemented in schools. He raised a number of objections during committee hearings on the legislation, including that it should not get into addressing specific groups of students when the larger issue is bullying.

Trustees won't have an issue if students name their support groups whatever they want as long as they conduct themselves in a Catholic manner, Mr. Del Grande said. But the fear is that these groups could turn into larger advocacy or political organizations and "force Catholics to think differently," he said. "Then we have a constitutional problem."

Campaign Life Coalition, a national pro-life group, is calling on church leaders and Catholic school boards to invoke Section 93 of the Constitution Act and reject the legislation on the grounds that it adversely impacts their faith and morals.

"This legislation now puts a radical homosexual agenda in every publicly funded, Catholic and public school across Ontario, under the guise of 'bullying prevention,' " Campaign Life says in a statement.

Frank Peters, a professor at the University of Alberta and an expert in education policy, said the Catholic educational community has not been well served by this kind of forceful opposition. "I think there's a fairly strong segment within the Catholic church who wonder just exactly how this is in contravention of Catholic teaching."

The Catholic archbishop of Toronto, Cardinal Thomas Collins, last week accused Premier Dalton McGuinty of making religious freedom a "second-class right" after his government introduced an amendment pushed by the New Democrats, removing a school's veto over GSA clubs.

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It is not clear whether church leaders will continue fighting. The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario issued a tersely worded statement on Tuesday, saying that it has "serious concerns" regarding certain aspects of the legislation. Bullying in any form is "unacceptable," the statement says, and Catholic partners will seek to foster safe and welcoming school communities "in a way that is in accord with our faith."

The Safe Schools Act, known as Bill 13, has not only created a rift between Catholic church leaders and the government. It has also left politicians bitterly divided.

The New Democratic Party supported the governing Liberals' bill and the Progressive Conservatives voted against it. Mr. McGuinty suggested that the Tories were homophobic.

His government, he said, is making a statement that discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation is not "honoured" in Ontario. "That's where [the Tories] have a problem," he said.

Mr. Hudak told reporters that principals run the province's schools and they should have a veto over students naming clubs.

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About the Author

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

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