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Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins at St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto.The Canadian Press

Public funding of Catholic schools clashed with the right to religious freedom Monday as one of the most powerful church leaders in Canada attacked the Ontario government's anti-bullying legislation.

"Please consider the implications for all when legislation is enacted that overrides the deeply held beliefs of any faith community, and intrudes on its freedom to act in a way that is in accord with its principles of consciences," said Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto.

The Liberal government initially said Catholic trustees could determine the name for new anti-homophobia student clubs called for in the legislation.

However, last Friday Education Minister Laurel Broten announced all schools would have to allow the groups to be called gay-straight alliances if that's what the students want.

"Why is a piece of provincial legislation being used to micromanage the naming of student clubs?" asked Cardinal Collins.

"We all are committed to obeying the law, but we can question whether the law is wise, whether the law is just or whether a law is a kind of intrusion or limiting of religious freedom."

Ms. Broten said she changed her mind after hearing from students at committee who said they don't want her or principals and trustees dictating the names of their clubs.

"We know that words matter. The message that we're giving to Ontario students today is you will be listened to, it's your club," Ms. Broten told reporters.

"The Premier and I were both very clear that it was not for us at Queen's Park to tell them what the name of their club should be, but neither should it be for someone else sitting in some other office in the province to tell them what the name of their club can't be."

Ms. Broten didn't want to speculate about what action she would take if the Catholic schools don't allow clubs to be called gay-straight alliances, but suggested cutting funding for those who don't obey the law was one option.

Cardinal Collins, who is also president of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, said trustees and principals are the legitimate stewards of the spiritual tradition of Catholic schools, not students.

"Should one student suddenly be able to determine the method to deal with the issues in a school?" he asked.

"I find that very puzzling. The point at issue here is the imposition of the one approach to deal with an issue to which there are many approaches."

The cardinal warned other faiths could become targets of the government if the anti-bullying bill becomes law and doesn't allow Catholic schools the right to deal with homophobia in their own ways.

"I would say to people of other faiths and even those who disagree with us on [gay-straight alliances] if this could happen to us it can happen to you in some other area," he said.

"When religious freedom becomes a second-class right, you also will eventually be affected."

Cardinal Collins did not point out that no other religious group gets public funding for their schools in Ontario.

The Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association called the word gay "a distraction" and said anti-bullying legislation is supposed to protect all students, not just those who are picked on because of their sexual orientation.

"We don't want to focus on the name," said OCSTA president Marino Gazzola.

"We want to focus on the content and what the groups are all about. These are externally developed groups that do not necessarily reflect the unique values of our students."

The government could not say what percentage of Ontario households or voters are separate school supporters or how much taxpayers have to pay to subsidize the Catholic education system.

The Progressive Conservatives said the Liberals were picking a fight with the Catholic school system, which gets about 33 per cent of Ontario's $24-billion annual education budget.

"The government has decided in this case to be aggressive, they want to provoke the Catholic education system for whatever reason," said Tory education critic Lisa MacLeod.

The Green Party of Ontario said the gay-straight alliance issue is a good example of why the cash-strapped province needs to eliminate the separate school system entirely.

"This absolutely is an example of how dangerous it is when you start funding one religion at the exclusion of all others," said Green Leader Mike Schreiner.

"We're talking about cutting essential services, including a number of services in the education sector, without even considering or having a conversation about the most obvious source of duplication in the system, which is the fact that we fund two separate school boards."

The Tories said they would try to block the amendment that would force Catholic schools to allow gay-straight alliances by that name.

"I'm personally of the view if children want a club they should have a club. However, you have to allow the school community to have a say in that as well," said Ms. MacLeod.

"I believe that there needs to be less, not more government intrusion in the lives of people, and we don't believe that Queen's Park should be legislating kids' clubs names, regardless of what they are."

The New Democrats said the Liberals have finally got it right by admitting you can't solve a problem like homophobia if you're afraid to use the word "gay."

"It's pretty clear that all the boards should be following the same rules," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

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