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It is June, that time of the year when rainbow washing usually reaches a fevered pitch as marketers jump on the Pride bandwagon to hustle everything from beer and burgers to bicycles and banking. I say “usually” because, in our new era of culture-war politics, associating with LGBTQ+ causes is no longer a risk-free way to draw attention (and dollars) to your brand.

Brewing giant Anheuser-Busch discovered this the hard way earlier this year when it launched a promotional campaign on social media for Bud Light featuring transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Conservative activists have since led a boycott of Bud Light that has decimated sales.

A right-wing backlash against efforts to destigmatize sexual orientation and gender differences threatens to turn back the clock on decades of hard-won victories for the LGBTQ+ community. South of the border, these issues are at the centre of a toxic political war that has turned U.S. public schools into literal battlegrounds in which LGBTQ+ students are often collateral damage.

Maybe it is because we cannot take it for granted that the arc of the moral universe will always bend toward justice that even seemingly minor assaults on equality rights must not go undenounced. And among the infractions that fall into this category is the refusal by the York Catholic District School Board to hoist the Pride flag at its head office.

The board’s trustees voted 6-to-4 this week to reject a motion calling on them to hoist a version of the iconic rainbow flag – specifically the Progress Pride Flag – at its Aurora, Ont. headquarters during Pride month in June. The motion was based on the recommendation of the board’s gender, sexuality and Catholic education committee. A longstanding board policy dictates that only the Canadian flag can be flown on individual school properties. So, we’re talking about a single Pride flag here.

“Christ embodied the spirit of inclusivity in all that he said and did,” the education committee said in recommending the move. “As we strive to emulate Christ, flying the Rainbow Flag reflects this belief of acceptance and affirmation, through a concrete and tangible act.”

A majority of YCDSB trustees were having none of it. Board chair Frank Alexander said trustees had been advised by two archbishops that rainbow flags do not “align with our Catholic values.” He insisted YCDSB schools are a safe place for LGBTQ+ students. But they and their supporters can be forgiven for feeling otherwise. The board in effect stigmatized them all over again.

Not that Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce intends to do anything about it. Mr. Lecce expressed “disappointment” at the board’s decision, saying: “Every child in a publicly funded school should be supported, should be affirmed and should feel safe.” But he has refused to order the YCDSB – which operates schools in his own King-Vaughan riding – to fly the flag.

That a publicly funded school board in Canada in 2023 can get away with this – or try to – speaks to the archaic structure of Ontario’s education system, which is still rooted in 19th century notions of minority rights. Catholic schools in Ontario were grandfathered at Confederation, when religious diversity was essentially a binary concept in a province with a Protestant majority.

Catholic doctrine on homosexuality, abortion and contraception (for starters) is incompatible with the equality rights that publicly funded schools should teach and uphold. But no Ontario government has had the guts to take this issue on. Quebec and Newfoundland did away with confessional school boards in the 1990s, so the main obstacle to ending public funding for Catholic schools in Ontario is not the Constitution, but rather political cowardice.

Former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne has accused her Progressive Conservative successor, Doug Ford, of courting “the votes of a bigoted minority” during his party’s 2018 leadership race. And she has blamed Mr. Lecce for “equivocating” when it comes to the safety of LGBTQ+ students. But Ms. Wynne had a chance to take on the Catholic-school lobby when she was in office and she demurred. That was a missed opportunity that Ontario is still paying for.

The price of that mistake will only get higher as time goes on. Ontario’s denominational school system is a costly legacy of a bygone era that segregates children according to their parents’ religion. Catholic school boards are often subject to control by a handful of zealots thanks to anemic voter turnout in trustee elections. Some trustees appear to find inspiration not in the Gospel, but rather in U.S.-style culture wars that seek to roll back LGBTQ+ rights.

The YCDSB’s refusal to hoist the Pride flag might not seem like a big deal amid the avalanche of gay-positive marketing that Canadians will see this month. But it should be the last straw for Ontarians who want their province’s public schools to celebrate equality rather than show contempt for it.

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