The provincial government — not the Catholic church — is the higher power when it comes to running Ontario schools, says Premier Dalton McGuinty.
The reminder came a day after Cardinal Thomas Collins, archbishop of Toronto, accused the minority Liberal government of making “religious freedom . . . a second-class right” with a
controversial amendment to an anti-bullying bill.
McGuinty, a Catholic whose wife Terri teaches in the separate school system that gets $7 billion annually in taxpayer funding, acknowledged Collins has responsibilities to exercise in his position.
“I have a different set of responsibilities,” McGuinty said Tuesday at the Bombardier factory in Downsview.
“I’m accountable to all faiths, I’m accountable to people of no faith. I’m accountable to all parents.”
Under the amendment supported by the New Democrats and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, Catholic schools must let students call anti-homophobia support groups “gay” clubs or words to that effect if teens so desire.
That means all children “will be accepted and respected for who they are,” the premier said, arguing it is one of Ontario’s “fundamental values that transcend any one faith.”
Collins questioned why the government would be “rigid” in giving students more power than school principals and trustees in naming clubs.
“Any student apparently can sort of override the people who have a serious responsibility to care for all the kids in the school,” Collins, also president of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, told Newstalk 1010.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who attended Catholic school and whose father was a principal, agreed with Collins that school officials should get the final word.
“I really don’t care what people decide in schools to call clubs. I just think that principals should have a say in what’s happening in those schools.”
Hudak said “oh, sure” when asked if it was possible to have an anti-homophobia club in a school without using the word “gay” or similar terminology in the name.
“This is supposed to be about fighting bullying across the board, protecting kids no matter why they’re bullied — if they’re gay if they’re disabled, if they’re fat or whatever reason.”
Education Minister Laurel Broten said her amendment does not give students free rein in choosing names that might be deemed inappropriate, specifying they must promote a “positive school climate that is inclusive and accepting of all pupils.”
“I feel confident that it will significantly allow students to have a voice and will put in the necessary protection,” she told reporters.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said it would be “frustrating” and disrespectful to allow students to set up gay-straight alliances or similar clubs but not permit “gay” in the name.
“That respect needs to come regardless of which school system students are enrolled in.”
Liberal sources say they amended the language in the bill to “remove any ambiguity” that might allow Catholic educators to override the provincial edict on naming clubs.
They believe the strategy has been successful politically because the NDP hasn’t broached it in the legislature and, more surprisingly, neither have the Tories despite their concerns.
That has led to an easy ride for the government — at least at Queen’s Park — on a contentious issue that has dominated news headlines and talk radio all week.
The cardinal’s statement against the amendment — including his plea that “we simply ask that diversity be respected in our society” — has Liberals suggesting his comments make the government seem reasonable and fair.
Although Conservatives have charged the amendment is a deliberate provocation of Catholics aimed at sapping public support for their school funding, Broten reiterated that is “absolutely not” the case.
Collins acknowledged the threat of lost funding is often made at Catholics.
“I’m a taxpayer too but we all are serving the common good, so this idea you can kind of override the religious values that serve the common good just simply on the point of public funding I think is just not a good argument.”
Jim Hughes of the anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition charged that Broten’s amendment on gay naming shows she is “an apologist for the homosexual activists and their drive to insert their agenda into all schools.”