For many families across Canada, it’s back-to-school time again!
It’s a good opportunity to update you on an issue that we brought to your attention late last year that involved heated debates around education, parental consent, religious freedom and students’ rights.
As you may recall, two years ago, the previous Alberta government had passed Bill 24, An Act to Support Gay-Straight Alliances, that amended the School Act in several ways. It required all schools that receive any public funding – from kindergarten to grade 12 – to:
- sign attestations that they are promoting Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs);
- establish GSAs immediately upon a student’s request, even if such groups are incompatible with the school’s mission or religious convictions, and in the absence of board or parental approval;
- ensure that “Safe and Caring” policies welcome and affirm the rights of LGBTQ students;
- limit parental notification only to the existence of GSAs or GSA-related activities, but not what activities are taking place or what ideologies are being promoted and by whom; and
- not disclose a child’s participation in a GSA or GSA-related activities to the parents.
Failure to comply would cost a school its funding and/or its accreditation.
This Bill concerned many faith-based schools and parents. Let me explain. These schools are fully committed to offering safe, accepting and supportive environments for all students, and to promoting anti-bullying initiatives and awareness of issues facing marginalized youth. But while they support clubs that address issues of bullying, inclusiveness, sexuality and gender, they believe that such clubs must operate in ways consistent with their beliefs and faith commitments. As such, they can not support Gay-Straight Alliances because GSAs are ideologically-driven groups that reinforce many beliefs and assumptions and promote lifestyles that contradict our biblical understanding of the gifts of love and human sexuality.
As well, Bill 24 takes away school autonomy by forcing principals to authorize GSAs immediately, even if doing so contradicts the school’s own mandate. This seriously undermines the ability of faith-based schools to preserve their unique character, learning environment and community life.
In addition, when schools are prohibited from informing parents of a child’s participation in GSAs or GSA-related activities, parental rights are violated. Responsibility for their children’s social and emotional development is taken away. The ban on informing parents what sexual content their children (even those as young as five) are being exposed to violates the right of parents to educate their children according to their own faith convictions and assumes that issues of sexual identity, gender, and morality are best handled by the state.
As for “acceptable” Safe and Caring policies, the previous Alberta government had deemed phrases like “the unchangeable and infallible truth of the Word of God,” “men and women were created in the image of God” and “godly attitudes toward marriage and the family” to be “unwelcoming, uncaring and/or disrespectful.” Policies like “student groups will reflect and/or be in harmony with teachings of Scripture and the values and faith perspective of the school community” were rejected for being discriminatory against other worldviews.
A coalition of 28 faith-based schools, individuals, educational organizations and parent organizations had launched a court challenge, led by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, to challenge the constitutionality of Bill 24. The EFC had supported this court challenge to defend our freedoms of conscience, religion, expression and association, as well as parental rights, and had applied for intervenor status in this case.
Then, in June 2019, shortly after a new government was formed in Alberta, Bill 8, The Education Amendment Act, was introduced. The Bill was passed in July. It replaces the School Act of 1998 and is now in effect.
The faith community welcomed the new laws around GSAs under Bill 8. Schools are still compelled to provide safe, welcoming places where diversity is celebrated and bullying is not tolerated. However, school administrators are no longer forced to grant a student’s request to establish a club immediately or to approve the use of words like “gay” in a club’s name. As well, the ban on notifying parents has been removed. Schools are still bound by existing privacy rules, but Bill 8 once again allows parents to be told if not doing so would leave a child at risk of harm. And finally, schools have autonomy in developing their Safe and Caring policies. We believe that the work of organizations like the EFC had an impact in the shaping of this Bill.
This issue is far from over. In Saskatchewan, pro-GSA groups are pushing the government to legislate the right of students to form GSAs in their schools. And there is increasing pressure on the provincial governments to legislate a time limit for principals to comply with student requests to set up clubs like GSAs.
The Bible tells us that we are responsible for teaching our children God’s ways. Since 1964, the EFC has been the respected, evangelical voice in defense of parental rights and religious freedom in education. God has tasked this (our) generation with the increasingly difficult task of defending our freedom to have schools that faithfully uphold God’s truths. Your gift today will help us to remain vigilant and to respond to any challenge quickly. You can make an impact on the future of faith-based education in Canada!
Executive Vice-President & Resident Theologian