WINNIPEG, March 1, 2013, (LifeSiteNews.com) – Controversy is escalating over the Manitoba NDP government's proposed anti-bullying law, which would force schools – including independent religious schools – to accommodate homosexual student clubs under the name gay-straight alliance (GSA).
The Public Schools Amendment Act (Safe and Inclusive Schools) stipulates that schools “must accommodate pupils who want to establish and lead activities and organizations that use the name 'gay-straight alliance' or any other name that is consistent with the promotion of a positive school environment that is inclusive and accepting of all pupils.”
Independent religious schools in the province contend that Bill 18 is a violation of their religious freedom, while the NDP education minister said the personal rights of students take precedence over religious freedom.
Manitoba religious private schools, including Jewish, Sikh, Islamic, as well as Catholic and other Christian denominations, receive no more than 50 percent taxpayer funding.
Education minister Nancy Allan confirmed that her government intends to make the GSA stipulation of Bill 18 apply to both public and private schools.
“There will be no compromise on that. We feel strongly that all students deserve to be in a safe and caring learning environment,” Allan said.
“At the end of the day, Bill 18 is about providing a safe and caring learning environment for students in the classroom. We all know that students do better if they are in an environment that is safe and caring. And at the end of the day that is what we want to have happen with this legislation,” Allan said according to SteinbachOnline.
Allan's comments were made the day after more than 1,200 people attended a meeting at Steinbach Christian High School, southeast of Winnipeg, to discuss the proposed legislation.
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When asked what her response to so many people gathering to show concern over the measure, Allen said, “Manitoba is a large province and this is an important conversation that we are having right now about how to provide safe schools for all students and that is what this legislation is all about.”
The principal at Steinbach Christian High School, Scott Wiebe, said he is concerned both about the bill's infringement on religious freedom and that the definition of bullying in the bill is so broad as to be ineffective at curbing the problem it is intended to address.
“When parents and students choose an independent, faith-based school they do so specifically because it offers a certain school environment and set of values.” said Wiebe in a statement. “Bill 18 erodes that choice by requiring these schools to accommodate and promote groups whose beliefs are in direct contradiction to the teachings of many independent faith based schools.”
“The Bill 18 definition of bullying is so vague as to include 'hurt feelings'. It is so subjective it will be almost impossible to enforce,” Wiebe said.
“The Manitoba government should look for democratic and inclusive ways to combat bullying. Forcing public and faith based independent schools to act against their beliefs and their community values is not the way to combat bullying,” Wiebe stated.
Robert Charach, principal of Winnipeg’s Linden Christian School, said schools must have the power to approve school clubs that “respect the values of the school.”
“We’re all on the same page–stop bullying,” he said. “But the communities of faith feel that they’re being bullied by this process.”
Steinbach MLA and Conservative education critic Kelvin Goertzen said the bill is weak response to a serious issue and will cause more problems than it solves.
“This bill is a weak response to a serious problem. It doesn't define bullying well. It goes as broad as to say that bullying can be hurt feelings. When you have a definition that's so broad, it means everything and it means nothing and it's not going to be enforced properly. There are other bills in other jurisdictions, including North Dakota, that have a much better definition and have some real effect,” Goertzen said according to SteinbachOnline.
North Dakota's anti-bullying law defines bullying as actions that place a student in reasonable fear of actual harm.
Goertzen said that BIll 18 “is now saying that the government can determine which student groups have to be allowed to form in a school. We've always said that independent schools have to have the right to ensure that they can determine the kind of activities, the kind of speakers, the kind of groups, that are forming in their schools so they are not contradictory to their faith perspective, because that's why parents are sending their kids to those schools.”
Moreover, Goertzen points out that Bill 18 has no provision for consequences or remediation for those involved in alledged bullying, but since the bill is still at First Reading, a concerted effort by those opposed to the legislation could influence legislators when the bill comes up for debate when the legislature sits for its spring session.