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Drag Queen Brigitte Bandit reads a book during a story time reading at the Cheer Up Charlies dive bar on March 11, 2023 in Austin, Texas.Brandon Bell/Getty Images North America

Jason Ellis is a historian of education and associate professor at the University of British Columbia.

In June, the Toronto District School Board stirred up controversy when it issued a policy permitting parents to exempt their children from drag queen storytime events at school. But an exemption is in keeping with a history of compromise in Ontario school policies, and can give religious differences due regard, as well as parents as their children’s moral educators, while still respecting queer and trans students.

In the past, schools have permitted different exemptions out of respect for families’ religious or moral beliefs. For decades, Ontario’s public schools were staunchly Protestant. At one point in time, daily opening exercises for children in public schools included reciting the Lord’s Prayer. At the same time, school regulations stated that no public school pupil was “required to take part in any religious exercise objected to by his parents or guardians.” Parents could exempt their children from opening exercises and from two weekly class periods of Christian religious instruction as well. Exempted children left the room at these times. (This was all in public schools. Roman Catholic separate schools taught Catholic doctrine.)

These exemptions were an effective compromise. They acknowledged that not all public school pupils were Protestant and that public schools should not force any doctrine on non-believers. At this time, moral instruction was practically inseparable from religious education. Exemptions, therefore, were also an act of recognizing moral instruction as an area where families had an important role to play, admitting that schools and parents shared a say in what moral lessons children were taught.

By the 1980s, with the introduction of state-supported multiculturalism and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, religion in schools, moral education, and exemption policies were revised. In the 1988 Zylberberg v. Sudbury Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court of Ontario struck down the requirement for pupils to recite the Lord’s Prayer in opening exercises. Two years later, in the 1990 case of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association v. Elgin County Board of Education, the same court struck down the two weekly periods of Christian religious instruction.

On both occasions, the court ruled these practices unreasonably infringed non-Christians’ Charter rights to freedom of religion. (It was not a matter of separation of church and state, always a more American notion than a Canadian one.) Both rulings were further affirmed by the Charter’s Section 27, which states: “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” To have only Christian or Protestant opening exercises and religious instruction did not respect the fact that, by this time, many public school pupils were Jewish, Muslim, Catholic or atheist – as were, variously, the families represented in the Zylberberg case.

With the court rulings in the Zylberberg and Elgin County cases, the previous exemptions to the Lord’s Prayer and religious classes became irrelevant. But public schools carried on compromising. Provincial regulations retained exemptions for those who objected to other aspects of schooling for religious or moral reasons. Under Ontario Regulation 435/00, parents may to this day exempt their children from singing O Canada as part of opening exercises. Some Jehovah’s Witnesses, for whom recognizing the state’s authority is contrary to their religious beliefs, use this exception. Ontario Policy/Program Memorandum 162 permits exemptions as well, from sex education (which can be interpreted as a form of moral instruction, based on religious beliefs) for children whose parents believe they are the “primary educators” when it comes to these matters.

Today, public schools should make no concessions to bigots who oppose queer-positive education or who slander LGBTQ people with ludicrous accusations that they are “grooming” schoolchildren. There is a place in public schools for drag queen storytime, which is fun, encourages reading, and gives schoolchildren positive, unashamed queer role models.

However, public schools can continue compromising. They can permit parents, who (rightly or wrongly) claim religious or moral objections, to opt their children out of drag queen storytime. This still respects trans and queer children, who will see themselves represented and celebrated in public schools through these events.

An exemption like this balances these children’s needs against those of other children, as well as families’ rights to religious freedom. It’s especially important given the Charter’s multiculturalism protection clause, and it also recognizes parents’ shared say in their children’s moral education.

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