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A Polish wave a rainbow flag as he takes part to the Gay Pride parade on June 7, 20008 in Warsaw. (WOJTEK RADWANSKI/WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Polish wave a rainbow flag as he takes part to the Gay Pride parade on June 7, 20008 in Warsaw. (WOJTEK RADWANSKI/WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Debate over gay support groups in Catholic schools set to resume Add to ...

The debate over support groups for gay students, and ultimately whether Catholic school boards can be accountable to both the province and the Roman Catholic Church, is about to heat up again at the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

Trustees will consider a series of amendments to their provincially mandated anti-bullying policy Wednesday that appear to place the Pope’s authority above Premier Dalton McGuinty’s. The TCDSB’s board meetings have been well-attended since the spring, with a small but vocal contingent of residents objecting to homosexuality being taught in any way in Catholic schools – including in the context of bullying prevention.

“The government seems to be pushing some things and some concepts that may not necessarily be congruent with what we [as Catholics]think,” said trustee John Del Grande, one of the authors of the amendments.

“For our school board, the reason why we exist is to provide a Catholic-based education. With that there’s certain morals and values and underpins that come with educating those students.”

The controversy began nearly a year ago, after the ministry issued new requirements that school boards draft equity and inclusion policies aimed at dealing with homophobia. One was that schools allow students to form gay-straight alliances, or GSAs. The suggestion proved problematic for Roman Catholic schools, which are also guided by a church doctrine that condemns homosexual activity, and the issue made international headlines after the Halton Catholic District School Board voted to ban gay-straight alliances outright.

The ban on the groups was later lifted, but students at Catholic schools in the GTA have since met resistance from administrators. The disagreements have centred around nomenclature – some boards have raised objections to rainbow symbolism or the word “gay” in the group’s name – and are likely to continue this fall when classes resume.

“There are certainly some grey areas around the way that the Catholic Church ought to work with gay, lesbian, transgendered people” said Frank Peters, a professor at the University of Alberta and an expert in education policy. “Certainly, the idea that the Ontario government has embraced a gay activist position, and that Catholic teaching is homophobic – I think I’d have real issues with either of those positions.”

There are a handful of proposed amendments to the policy before the TCDSB, including one that is meant to be inserted below a paragraph about upholding the protections of the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“Where there is an apparent conflict between the [ministry’s policy]and the denominational aspect of Catholic schools, the protection of the denominational aspect take precedence,” it reads.

“These amendments are so stupid,” said Ward 3 Trustee Sal Piccininni. “…There’s one in there about ‘leading a Catholic lifestyle.’ It’s guarded, it’s hidden in nice jargon, but basically it’s going after gay students.”

The denominational rights of Catholic schools are protected in Canada’s Constitution. But exactly how much power those rights give the church over education policy has yet to be tested in court, according to Dr. Peters.

Student Anna Tran said students at her school, Father Michael Goetz Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, need a GSA. She said derogatory phrases such as “That’s so gay,” and “No homo,” are commonly heard in the hallways and a GSA would help raise awareness that these phrases can be hurtful.

She hopes to start a GSA at her school this fall.

“I’ve had really positive response so far but we haven’t talked to any of the administrators yet about it,” she said.

Students at another Mississauga Catholic School, St. Joseph’s Secondary, met resistance when they tried to form a GSA in the last school year. They were directed to start a group with a broad anti-bullying agenda, rather than one that was against homophobia.

Some Catholic ratepayers have spoken out in support of gay and lesbian students. However, this summer, a member of Toronto’s Coptic Christian community threatened to pull thousands of students from TCDSB classrooms over concerns homosexuality was being taught in school.

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