Are Catholic school leaders muzzling teachers on supporting rights for LGBT students?
That's the claim from the NDP's critic for education.
"There is a hierarchy within the Catholic Church, where a select few people make decisions that do not reflect the people they are meant to represent," says Rosario Marchese, MPP for Trinity Spadina. "A majority of teachers in the Catholic school system support the rights of LGBTQ students, but have been prevented from actively voicing their support."
Marchese, himself a former Catholic school teacher, says homophobia within the school system is difficult enough to tackle without the opposition of education officials who are at odds with faculty over the issue.
Marchese's words came on the heels of a press conference Monday at which the Archbishop of Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins spoke out against anti-bullying legislation recently introduced by the Ontario government.
Bill 13 would allow students the right to call anti-homophobia clubs "gay-straight alliances", but many Catholic leaders object to explicit use of the word "gay," and want the groups to go by another name.
Collins questioned why the province should involve itself in monitoring anti-bullying initiatives in schools, suggesting that the bill was intrusive and unnecessary. "Why are Catholics not free to design their own methods to fight bullying, and provide personal support to students, as long as they attain the common goal of a welcoming and supportive school?" questioned Collins.
Ontario Minister of Education Laurel Broten says Bill 13 will be upheld in schools across the province, with or without the blessing of the Catholic Church.
"Bill 13 is not open for interpretation. It is not for anyone, not I, or the archbishop, to decide how the bill will be incorporated in the school system. The province has the final word," says the minister.
Despite protests by the Catholic Church and Toronto Catholic School Board, Broten says that allowing students to choose the name of their club is an important step in fighting against bullying in Ontario Schools.
"We know that homophobia exists in schools, and we know that the bullying of students that identify as LGBTQ, or come from LGBTQ families, is an issue that needs to be addressed.
They have the right to name their clubs as they see fit. They have our support," she says.
Support for LGBTQ students is the focus of the first ever Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Questioning Youth Suicide Prevention Summit, held this week by EGALE Canada.
The two-day conference, hosted by Ryerson University from May 30-31, is bringing together policy makers and experts to address suicide amongst LGBTQ youth across North America. Bill 13 and the ensuing controversy will be addressed at the conference, organizers say.
According to Marchese, the only controversy caused by Bill 13 is the lack of support it's receiving from the Catholic school board. He warns that if the board doesn't change its stance, the publicly funded religious schools could face a bleak future in Ontario.
"There could be serious trouble if attitude changes aren't made," Marchese says. "It is a serious risk to the Catholic school system if they fail to modernize."