Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Allan right to shut down opponents of anti-bully bill

Those who criticize protection for kids intolerant, outdated

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Education Minister Nancy Allan has held firm. So far.

This week, Allan dismissed demands to change Bill 18, a new anti-bullying law now before the legislature. Critics claim the law violates religious freedom and is too broad to be of any practical value.

As a rule, elected officials should always hear out their constituents, even those with whom they disagree. However, in this instance, one might forgive Allan's quick dismissal; her critics are singing from a songbook that should have been discarded many years ago.

Among its provisions, Bill 18 requires all schools to allow the creation of anti-bullying clubs, including gay-straight alliance groups that have been effective in protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) students.

Religious schools and their supporters have reacted with predictable horror, claiming that forcing a church-affiliated school to teach tolerance toward GLBT students is a violation of their right to religious freedom. This poorly structured argument is nothing new. It's being used by schools all across Canada right now to justify the suppression of GLBT support groups and the removal or prevention of anti-homophobia campaigns and curriculum.

Last year in Altona, it was the justification for forcing some teachers to remove cards from their classrooms that affirmed support for GLBT students and advocated for greater tolerance. In some Ontario schools, officials have even banned students from displaying rainbows -- a symbol of support for the queer community -- as part of anti-homophobia campaigns.

Opponents of the legislation talk a lot about a violation of their principles. OK, let's review certain indisputable principles. Religious freedom does not grant anyone leeway to practise and promote intolerance, hatred or discrimination. The laws of the land outline different rights and freedoms, and sometimes they come into conflict with one another. The courts are asked to assign a priority to certain rights. For example, someone's right to privacy can be violated to release information deemed essential to the public good.

However, while you can violate one right to allow another to prevail, in general you can't use one right or freedom to justify intolerance. Religious freedom does not, nor was it ever intended to, provide free rein for one group to dehumanize another. It is why, for example, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights forbids any country from passing laws that create different classes of citizens. Fear and loathing of the GLBT community may be tolerated in some churches, but it does not enjoy constitutional protection.

That will not stop the howling over Bill 18 from groups such as the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives who argue "the discretion for faith-based independent schools and for community values" is paramount. Somehow, they forgot to mention the safety of particularly vulnerable children. And while some of us may not agree with homosexuality, surely we're not debating whether GLBT Canadians are regularly subjected to bullying?

The other major concern over Bill 18 is the very definition of bullying could be too broad to be practical or effective. That is a frequent complaint in jurisdictions that have introduced anti-bullying laws.

Everyone agrees bullying is a scourge and it must be addressed. Most provinces either have, or will have anti-bullying laws. In the U.S., 49 of 50 states have some form of anti-bullying legislation. However, the effectiveness of these laws is tough to assess because all use different definitions and enforcement mechanisms.

Bill 18 certainly has a broader definition, and there is concern among parents and educators about whether it will require every off-handed comment, sideways glance and unintended offence to be punished.

These concerns are reasonable, although perhaps they are given too much weight given the urgency of the problem, and evidence schools are simply not doing enough on their own.

Bullying is not a new concern and there has been some progress, mostly on a school-by-school basis. However, with each new story of the suicide of a bullied child, we learn people at school perhaps could have intervened, but did not, or would not.

In that light, maybe a broader definition is justified. Bill 18 does not require schools to organize gay-straight alliance groups. It merely asks that they not prevent them. And the law doesn't require every student suspected of bullying be punished. Instead, it requires schools to more thoroughly investigate allegations and intervene if warranted. With due process, a broader definition should not be feared.

In moments of great conflict, facts are a comfort. It's a fact GLBT kids are subjected to bullying and they need to be protected. It's also a fact homophobia is both repugnant and illegal. And that promoting tolerance is not promoting any particular lifestyle.

Anyone opposing a law that seeks to protect kids from a clear and present danger ought to come armed with something more persuasive than a need to defend outdated, intolerant values.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2013 A4

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