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Catholic Schools in One Canadian Province Set to Endorse Anti-Trans Discrimination

Catholic Schools in One Canadian Province Set to Endorse Anti-Trans Discrimination

In Nasty Turn, Edmonton Catholic Schools Endorse Discrimination Against Trans People

A nondiscrimination policy provisionally adopted by the Canadian Catholic school body has supporters of trans rights angered and dismayed.


A limited nondiscrimination policy provisionally adopted by the Edmonton Catholic School Board in Canada's Alberta province this month has some observers calling it a license to discriminate against transgender people.

The board members, who have been struggling to craft a trans-inclusive policy after a discrimination complaint by the parents of a transgender girl, are drawing criticism primarily for one word, reports the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. The original draft policy, passed on first reading in October, stated, "All members of the school community have the right to an environment free of discrimination, prejudice and harassment." But the policy approved on second reading December 1 had the additional word "unjust." Now the policy says that students, teachers, staff, and parents have the right to be free of "unjust discrimination, prejudice, and harassment."

"That recognizes that there is just and unjust discrimination," said board member Cindy Olsen, who argued in favor of the wording. As examples of "just" discrimination, she brought up denying driver's licenses to visually impaired people and not allowing non-Catholics to teach religion in Catholic schools.

The policy won't become final until a third reading, as board members try to walk the line between protecting students' legal rights while adhering to church teaching. In the meantime, some say the idea of "just" discrimination opens the door for trans students, teachers, staff, and parents to be mistreated.

"I can't imagine any child who is sitting out there listening to this feels any safer or welcome today," said Marni Panas, a transgender woman who attended the school board hearing, according to the CBC. "When we have an argument about what is 'just' discrimination and what is 'unjust' discrimination, who decides this? This is not a step forward.'"

The mother of the transgender child whose presence led to the debate did not care for the new wording either. "Religion does not trump human rights. Civil and human rights are a given, and the fact that we're discussing it in 2015 is beyond me," said the mother, whose name was not disclosed.

Some board members objected to the addition of the word "unjust" as well. "It needs to be black and white. The purpose of policy is to provide clarity so everyone knows what is expected," said board chair Marilyn Bergstra.

Patricia Grell, another trustee, agreed with Bergstra, claiming that the policy is "almost like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is what is unjust sort in the eye of whoever is deciding what is unjust? It seems to be open to interpretation."

In Nasty Turn, Edmonton Catholic Schools Endorse Discrimination Against Trans People

Catholic LGBT activists also criticized the policy. "Catholic education, whose mandate comes from the Gospel, has a duty to ensure all students flourish by providing high quality education in safe and respectful environments," said Bob Shine of New Ways Ministry in an email newsletter to supporters. "As it is written now, ECSB's policy will not move their schools towards this end for trans students or their family, friends, and educators. Catholic officials attempt to differentiate 'just' and 'unjust' discrimination is not a new tactic, but it remains a failed and dangerous one." New Ways is a Catholic organization that advocates for LGBT equality within the church.

The policy could be revised again on third reading. Board members are waiting for guidelines from Alberta education minister David Eggen on whether the policy conforms to nondiscrimination law. The day after the meeting, Eggen expressed concern that the the policy did not specifically mention LGBT students or staff, the Edmonton Journal reports. "They've definitely steered a different direction than what I was seeing just a few days before," Eggen told the paper.

Eggen has instructed all school boards in the province to develop policies protecting LGBT rights and supporting gay-straight alliances by March 30. "If Edmonton Catholic is a bellwether, then it does serve a purpose to remind all school boards of just what the gravity of the situation is and what public expectations are," he told the Journal. "You need to make sure you are following the letter of the law, so we need to have specificity there to make sure that's happening properly."

Earlier meetings of the Edmonton Catholic School Board have seen strife over trans equality. A September meeting devolved into trustees screaming, shouting, and crying after Grell shared "a document written by a group of Catholic superintendents designed to guide school boards in their treatment of transgender students, the Journal reported. The document, endorsed by Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, stated that "gender transitioning is contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church."

The document also said that "any educator approached with a request for accommodation must respond with sensitivity, respect, mercy, and compassion" and at one point it called for gender-neutral bathrooms while saying that principals should use their discretion regarding "a student's participation in intramural sports, some gender-exclusive courses, and overnight field trips."

Grell felt that the language in the superintendents' document, like the language in the school board's revised policy, appears to open the door to transphobic discrimination. She complained at the September meeting that she had misgivings regarding following the document's guidelines, although she acknowledged that the guidelines are nonbinding. At the same September meeting, trustee Larry Kowalczyk told the media that he considers being transgender to be "a mental disorder," according to the Canadian Press news service. He eventually apologized.

Canadian Catholic schools have accused of discrimination against trans people for years. "In 2008 Jan Buterman, a transgender substitute teacher, was fired from the St. Albert Catholic School District," Vice reports. "The reason he was given was that his gender transition didn't align with church teachings. Just last year, Buterman won the right to argue a wrongful dismissal case in front of the Canadian human rights tribunal, but in the intervening seven years, it seems that the area's Catholic School Districts haven't progressed very much."

Vice goes on to detail the treatment received by the trans student in Edmonton and her mother. The mother initiated discussions with school officials, which she audio-recorded, about how to protect her daughter from harm. The mother was shocked when Father Dean Dowle, an Edmonton Catholic priest, advised that she discipline her child for being trans. The daughter had been suicidal. Statistics show the risk of suicide is high for trans teens. Later, the mother filed a human rights complaint against the school for barring her daughter from using the girls' restroom; school officials then decided the girl should use a gender-neutral restroom. The case led Grell, the school trustee, to write a widely read blog post that argued that the Catholic school's policy against trans students defied Christ's compassion.

And now the school's antidiscrimination policy remains the subject of controversy. The third and final reading is expected in the next few months.

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Cleis Abeni

Cleis (pronounced like "dice") is a former correspondent for The Advocate.
Cleis (pronounced like "dice") is a former correspondent for The Advocate.