The Charter of Rights is many splendoured. But like all beautiful things, it contains paradoxes. As school resumes across Canada this month, one Charter paradox in particular will weigh on many students’ lives: the ban on gay-rights clubs enforced in Ontario’s state-funded Catholic schools.
Last November, the Catholic school board in the Southern Ontario community of Halton passed a resolution banning “gay-straight alliances” – clubs in which gay and straight high-school students meet to talk about and promote gay rights. Other school boards then confirmed they have similar bans.
Gay students in the Catholic schools say their rights to free expression, assembly and equality give them the further right to form gay liberation clubs. The Catholic boards say their right to operate distinctly Catholic schools – guaranteed by the British North America Act and Section 29 of the Charter – allows them to block at least some gay equality projects on school grounds.
As a compromise, the boards have said students can form broad-based “equity clubs.” The clubs can promote homosexual and transgender equality alongside racial equality and rights for women and the disabled, but they can’t use the word “gay” in the club name. Apparently, the key difference between an equity club and a gay-straight alliance is that an equity club promotes equality for all, while the alliance clubs are more narrowly focused. Also, the alliance clubs call themselves “gay.”
The boards knew they were on thin ice banning discussion of homosexual rights entirely. The equity clubs are the answer – a way to avoid officially censoring the conversation, while keeping the word “gay” off the morning announcements. The Jesuit art of equivocation lives on.
Ironically, the Fathers of Confederation wrote Catholic school rights into the Constitution because they wanted to protect minorities. Catholics were then a profoundly marginalized group, and many of their schools were francophone. Preserving them was a way of shielding what most French Canadians saw as an elemental part of their identity. Still other Catholic schools had large numbers of Irish, who also were intent on preserving their culture.
The Catholic schools were a way of making peace. In protecting them, the Constitution advanced its project of enshrining respect for diversity as a central value. Today, the ban on gay-rights clubs in Ontario’s Catholic schools stands as an amnesiac denial of the Catholic education law’s history and what that law means.
Many Catholics support gay rights. They defy their leaders and offer theological arguments for doing so. Unfortunately for gay students, these Catholics are not in charge of the Church. Nor, for the most part, are they in charge of the Catholic school boards.
The debate over gay-rights clubs is part of a broader controversy in Canadian schools as to what should be taught about homosexuality in the classroom. Where does it leave many families’ religious views, for instance, if students must learn about gay sex alongside straight sex in health class?
I am a gay man who grew up Catholic. My relationship with the Church is complicated. On one hand, I know that Catholicism is tied up with my sense of compassion and of Irish heritage. But I also know that the Church made me ashamed for a long time.
Many gay teenagers harm themselves today out of shame. The last thing they need is a ban on clubs that offer them support.
Aidan Johnson is a lawyer.Report Typo/Error
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