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Gay rights aren’t that complicated, Mr. Premier

This has not been Jim Prentice's finest hour. While the new Alberta Premier was crisscrossing the country to talk pipelines last week, laying the ground for a national energy strategy, his own government sprang a leak. By the time he got home, the Premier had to cap a gusher.

A largely backburner issue in the Premier's eyes had suddenly become a major test of his leadership. Would he take a principled stand in favour of equality, or would he try to triangulate under the auspices of balancing the competing rights of gays, parents and faith-based schools?

In the end, he punted. Mr. Prentice yanked a government bill setting out the parameters for the creation of student-led gay-straight alliances in publicly funded schools, saying there was "clearly no consensus in Alberta on either the constitutionality or the wisdom" of the legislation. Instead of coming down on the side of equality (also known as history), the Premier decided to think it over for a while.

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"I don't intend to be specific on immediate next steps," Mr. Prentice said. "Given the emotion on all sides of this discussion, I think that everyone will benefit from a pause."

Really? Because it's not that complicated, Mr. Premier. There may have been a time when publicly funded Roman Catholic schools could invoke their constitutionally protected status and "freedom of religion" to trample on the rights of gay students. But that time passed long ago.

To be sure, Bill 10 was a mess to begin with. But in choosing to punt rather than fix it, under the prattle of needing "further consultation" with Albertans, Mr. Prentice is showing his mettle. It's not flattering.

His government tabled Bill 10 late last month to head off potential embarrassment after a Liberal MLA introduced a private member's bill on gay-straight alliances – student-led school clubs that are credited with reducing bullying against LGBT youth. MLA Laurie Blakeman's bill would have forced both public and Catholic schools to allow a gay-straight alliance if requested by students.

Like their counterparts in Ontario and Saskatchewan, Catholic schools in Alberta are fully funded by the provincial government under Section 93 of the Constitution. That 1867 provision was aimed at protecting French-speaking minorities in majority-English provinces. But it is now archaic and arguably incompatible with the equality provisions of the Charter of Rights.

Yet, to accommodate the unenlightened opponents of gay-straight alliances who run Catholic and rural public boards in the province, Mr. Prentice sought to replace Ms. Blakeman's bill with his own. Bill 10 would have allowed students to request a GSA, but if their school or school board refused, they would have had to apply to the courts to settle the issue. Forcing 14-year-olds to mount legal challenges to assert their rights to equality and free assembly seemed outright cruel and asinine.

The uproar should have been enough for Mr. Prentice to put his foot down and do the right thing. Instead, he amended Bill 10 to allow teenagers blocked from forming a GSA to ask the Education Minister to intervene. Problem is, the current minister is an evangelical Christian pastor whose church considers homosexuality a sin. And even if the minister allowed a GSA, Bill 10 provided no guarantee it could meet or organize activities on school property.

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It was segregation by any name. Three Progressive Conservative MLAs voted against the amendment. MLA Thomas Lukaszuk railed against his government's proposed "incremental granting of human rights." Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish ridiculed Bill 10 on Twitter and said: "I want my kids growing up in a world where it doesn't matter who you love … none of that matters and I think a lot of people still think that matters."

The best Mr. Prentice could come up with? "Rights are never absolute."

By the time he returned from his pipeline-pitching tour of Vancouver, Quebec City and Toronto, and after basking in photo-ops with visiting New Jersey Governor and Keystone XL fan Chris Christie, Mr. Prentice had to face up to the fact that leadership is about more than quixotic megaprojects or a national energy strategy.

It's about explaining to the retrogrades in your caucus that times have changed, that religious freedom can no longer be used as an excuse to deny others their rights, that there is no going back and that, by the way, the next bullied gay kid in Grade 10 just might be your own son or granddaughter.

So far, Mr. Prentice isn't doing so great.

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