Troy Media – by Janet Keeping
The Edmonton Public School Board has prepared a draft “philosophical foundation statement” on inclusivity that has been hailed as leading-edge from the human rights perspective but faces some parents’ religious objections.
The parents’ arguments cannot trump, since the statement does nothing more than elaborate upon what is already firmly established public policy: public schools are supposed to be welcoming and safe places for all members of society.
The statement affirms “establishing and maintaining a safe, inclusive, equitable, and welcoming . . . environment for all members of the school community” including those “who identify or are perceived as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirit, queer or questioning their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”
Yet, the Logos Christian Parents Society – whose religious schooling operates as part of Edmonton Public School Board – argues that their freedom of religion would be infringed by a policy requiring inclusivity. In other words, they want full public funding to teach and practice anti-public values.
It is beyond absurd that such schools should be permitted to do so.
The choice should be clear: full public funding means you agree to be a public school advancing the values upon which our successful country and province are founded – most important of which is that everyone is equal in dignity and moral worth. And if you can’t stomach equality, the private school option is open to you.
Public schooling essential to civil democracy
A public school system exists so that children can develop into independent adults able to realize their dreams and contribute to the community through work and relationships of many other kinds. It also exists to pull the community together, to both reflect and reinforce the idea of the public. This is the idea that society is more than a group of individuals, that together we are capable of things we could never accomplish acting alone and that democracy entails working together to solve our shared, common problems.
There is nothing more appropriate for a public school board than adoption of a policy which stresses that in 21st century Canada everyone who elects to attend, or is otherwise qualified to work in, a public school belongs there, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Public schools and Charter equality
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies to everything under the jurisdiction of the federal and provincial governments, and education falls within the latter.
Accordingly, public school boards must conform to the Charter, in particular to the requirement that government programs, such as education, operate to the equal benefit of everyone in society.
So school board policy welcoming vulnerable groups such as gays and transsexuals cannot be problematic. It might be redundant – because what the statement contains goes without saying – but it certainly cannot be legally objectionable, because it is true whether explicitly stated in policy or not.
Besides, no one’s freedom of religion is limited in any way by the Charter’s requirement of equality.
Why anyone thought it was wise to allow religious schools to operate as part of the Edmonton Public School Board eludes me, but surely an obvious requirement is that such schools conform to public policy. Why should taxpayer money support schools which operate in violation of our public values? It just doesn’t make sense.
What about separate schools?
In principle the same arguments apply to separate schools – nearly all of which are Catholic – but the equality provisions of the Charter have been made explicitly inapplicable to them. It will take a constitutional amendment to change that, not a mere statement of school board policy.
Dissidents can operate private schools
Where would the Logos Christian School go if it has to leave the Edmonton Public Board because the parents’ society cannot live with equality? It would be perfectly free to set up a private school and settle for 70 per cent student funding from the province.
Why taxpayers subsidize private schools to such a high level is another mystery, but at least with such schools ousted from the Edmonton Public Board, the offensive fabrication that schools which discriminate are public schools would be put to rest.
Public schools must be open to all because public schools are an expression of one of our highest public ideals – that everyone matters equally. The Edmonton Public Board’s statement on sexual orientation and gender identity should be lauded as a decisive rejection of the bad old days when discrimination was not only tolerated but regrettably often codified in law and public policy.
Janet Keeping is a lawyer and president of the Calgary-based Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.
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