Coptic Christians in Ontario, and across Canada, should not be preaching intolerance in the education system. Yet this is the message of Father Jeremiah Attaalla, a Coptic Orthodox priest in Toronto, who has admonished parishioners to remove their children from the publicly-funded Roman Catholic school system over its proposed policy to accommodate gay students.
While individual faith groups are entitled to retain their traditional beliefs, publicly-funded Roman Catholic schools in Canada must abide by the equality principles in the Canadian Constitution – even if they are out-of-step with the church’s own teachings. Students’ welfare and equality rights trump official religious dogma.
The Toronto Catholic District School Board is set to vote later this month on a long-overdue Equity and Inclusive Education policy. The policy advocates opposing all forms of social and cultural discrimination, and pledges to treat people with respect, regardless of their race, place of origin, creed, sex or sexual orientation. The Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association also has a task force which is drafting a framework for anti-homophobia support groups.
These are welcome developments. And the Catholic school system should not be swayed by threats of withdrawal from parents and supporters.
Faith communities need to recognize that high school students who identify themselves as gay are at a greater risk for suicide and for bullying – outcomes religious leaders presumably want to avoid. These students need support, not public vilification.
Efforts to form alliances of gay and heterosexual students – a flashpoint in this debate – have proven helpful for vulnerable teenagers. “If you’re going to accept public money, you have to accept social norms. We live in a diverse environment and all students must feel safe in order to be able to learn,” says Paul Marai, an openly gay trustee of the Halton Catholic District School Board.
Coptic Christian leaders should ask themselves why they would not want to show compassion and tolerance toward all young people. Surely that is the least that our society can expect from faith communities.