Marilyn Bergstra, chair of the Edmonton Catholic School Board meets local media Jan. 13 to praise provincial guidelines for school boards to develop policies on LGBTQ students.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Marilyn Bergstra, chair of the Edmonton Catholic School Board meets local media Jan. 13 to praise provincial guidelines for school boards to develop policies on LGBTQ students.

January 15, 2016
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

While the chair of the board of Edmonton Catholic Schools is pleased with new provincial guidelines to develop policies on LGBTQ students, the bishop of Calgary is calling on Catholic school boards to reject them.

In a pastoral letter released Jan. 13, Calgary Bishop Fred Henry said the guidelines "breathe pure secularism." They would impose a narrow-minded, anti-Catholic agenda, he said.

The guidelines, which are expected to help Alberta's 61 school boards to come up with regulations to protect the rights of LGBTQ students and teachers, were released earlier that day by Education Minister David Eggen.

The 21-page document states, among other things, that school policies should allow gender-diverse students and teachers to participate on gender-segregated sports teams that reflect their gender identity and choose bathrooms that also reflect their gender expressions.

Boards have until March 31 to submit their policies to the education department for review. The policies must explicitly protect diversity in schools and provide safe places for all students.

At a news conference following the document's release, Edmonton Catholic board chair Marilyn Bergstra said she was "very impressed" by the guidelines. "I think they are very thorough. I think a lot of thought went into them."

Bergstra said the guidelines will help the board develop a policy that is clear and unambiguous. "My wish would be that every single word in that document is adopted but that's not how democracy works," she added.

In his letter, Henry said Catholic schools are committed to supporting inclusive communities that teach care and compassion for every person, regardless of age, race, sex, gender or sexual orientation, and require that every person be treated with dignity and respect.

The government guidelines, however, "show no evidence of consultation with or sensitivity to the Catholic community," he said. Nor do they reflect Catholic teaching.

"This approach and directive smack of the madness of relativism and the forceful imposition of a particular narrow-minded anti-Catholic ideology," the bishop wrote.

"Such a totalitarian approach is not in accordance with the Supreme Court of Canada opinion (Loyola) delivered on March 19, 2015 and must be rejected."

At that time the Supreme Court ruled that Quebec infringed on the religious freedom of a Jesuit-run school in Montreal by requiring it to teach a program on religious culture and ethics. The school wanted to teach the course from a Catholic perspective.

"Our teaching is rather simple and direct," he wrote. "God created beings as male and female. In doing so, he gave equal dignity to both man and woman. In his plan, men and women should respect and accept their sexual identity."

Bishop Frederick Henry

Bishop Frederick Henry.

The Calgary bishop also condemned gay-straight alliances and queer-straight alliances, labelling them as "highly politicized ideological clubs which seek to cure society of 'homophobia' and 'heterosexism,' and which accept the idea that all forms of consensual sexual expression are legitimate."

He said the view that these clubs espouse "is not Catholic."

Bergstra said in a Jan. 15 email to the WCR that the board will review Henry's statement.

The board is trying to develop "a thoughtful policy," she said. "Until this process is complete, I cannot comment as to specifics of how the final draft policy will look."

However, on the same day, Jan. 15, trustees met at the board office without Bergstra and decided to send out a copy of the provincial guidelines and of Henry's pastoral letter to parents for information.

Bergstra, who could not attend the trustees' meeting as she was at a meeting of the Alberta School Boards' Association board of directors, said if she had been at the board's meeting, she would have advised against the move to send out the documents to the parents "for a variety of reasons."

"Having said this, I want to personally apologize to anyone that the move might have caused harm or hurt to," Bergstra said, refusing to say what reasons she has to oppose sending the documents to parents.

SIFTING THROUGH

"In moving forward, I want to assure everyone that the board is beginning the process of sifting through the 21 pages of (provincial) guidelines. There is a lot to go through. We want to honour a process that is respectful, thorough and thoughtful.

"And once this process is completed, we will be bringing our final draft forward to public board for its third and final reading."

The Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association entered the debate Jan. 19 with a written statement criticizing the government and defending the Alberta bishops.

CONSULTATION LACKING

The ACSTA said it "regrets Alberta Education's lack of consultation" during the development of the guidelines.

The association, representing 24 school boards, also reaffirmed the role of the Alberta bishops "to provide moral and theological leadership to the Catholic community, including Catholic education communities."

All Catholic schools in the province "have been and will continue to be inclusive, welcoming, safe and caring environments," the ACSTA said.

It also pointed to document produced by the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta which has "long ensured that all students, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, etc. are treated with equal respect and dignity."

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD

The debate over the rights of transgender students came to the forefront earlier last year when a seven-year-old transgender girl wanted to use the girl's washroom in her Edmonton Catholic school.

She was no longer identifying as a boy and didn't want to stand out by having to use a new, gender-neutral washroom. In May, her school agreed she could use the female facilities.

POLICY VAGUE

Last December trustees passed second reading of their stand-alone policy on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. However, critics described it as too vague.

According to Bergstra, the board has been waiting for the provincial guidelines to move forward with its policy.

"That was the missing element to final development of our policy," she said Jan. 13.

"I also respect that government did their homework and their due diligence to ensure that it had a very comprehensive set of guidelines submitted to boards."