Manitoba’s proposed anti-bullying law, Bill 18, has sparked an outpouring of commentary from Free Press readers. Here is a selection of some thoughtful, and surprising, commentaries.
By Corey Shefman
The Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties calls on all Manitobans to stand against discrimination and bigotry by supporting Bill 18, a proposed law which combats bullying, protects our children and ensures that our schools are safe spaces.
The opposition to Bill 18 relies on an appeal to irrational fear and the hope that if fundamentalists scream "religious freedom" loud enough, people will not notice that religious freedom is not actually under attack.
The fear, apparently, is that children will be disciplined for "a single off-handed quip" and that the very foundation of Manitobans’ religious belief will be shattered by acknowledging the fact that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people exist.
Let’s be clear; the opponents’ assertions that the amendments contained in Bill 18 will make it "more difficult for school administrators to use common sense and to ensure that any disciplinary measures are appropriate and effective" is simply false.
The bill defines bullying, it does not set out specific forms of discipline and it does not require the administrator to act in a certain way — in other words, it explicitly protects common sense and discretion.
What it does require is that schools have written policies in place to deal with bullying and other abusive behaviours. It does not mandate that schools treat "offhand quips" the same way they treat direct threats to safety. The bill provides administrators with the tools they need to make informed and evidence-based decisions about how to deal with bullies and bullying behaviour based on the unique circumstances of each individual situation.
As for the issue of religious schools being forced to accommodate groups they don’t agree with, consider what the bill actually requires. Schools must now accommodate students who wish to establish groups which "promote gender equity, anti-racism, awareness, understanding of and respect for people who are disabled [and] awareness, understanding of and respect for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities."
The Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties; Through a range of community initiatives, youth education systems, and public policy programs, we promote, support, and celebrate fundamental human rights and civil liberties in Manitoba.
You’ll have to excuse MARL for finding it hard to believe that allowing "awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientations" is an imminent threat to the ability to practice one’s religion.
It is unclear how any of these provisions infringes the right to religious freedom, as has been claimed by some people recently in the media. Bill 18 does not propose making attendance at a GSA meeting mandatory, nor does it require that anyone become an advocate for gay rights. What it requires is "awareness, understanding and respect."
We could also point out the fact that there is nothing in the theology of any major religion which prevents adherents to that religion from ‘respecting’ any of the groups named above. But at the end of the day, the vitriol with which opponents of the bill have attacked it and its supporters is telling, and requires no explanation.
However, even if the bill did limit religious freedom, it has long been recognized that the freedom of expression, like all rights, has limits. We saw in the Keegstra and Taylor Supreme Court decisions, and just this month in the Whatcott decision, that the Charter of Rights and all human rights legislation in Canada is subject to competing interests.
Is the bill perfect? No. And we will be proposing a number of minor changes when the bill goes before the legislative committee. But this bill does not pose the kind of threat that its opponents would have Manitobans believe.
Indeed, this bill protects students from those very fundamentalists who can’t see the congregation for the pews.
Corey Shefman is chair of the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties policy and legislative affairs committee.
By Val Hiebert
Most of us are somewhat familiar with the historic four-tier caste system of India, which is still operative today. The four castes consist of the Brahmins (priests and academics), the Kshatriyas (warriors and kings), the Vaishyas (business community), and the Kshudras (servants and subordinates to all of the above).
A fifth group of Indian citizens also exist, who were/are considered sub-human and thus not worthy of being part of the caste system — the untouchables, now commonly referred to as the Dalits.
These untouchables are expected to be exactly that — remain out of literal reach of Indian society, living together in isolated villages, banned from social life, temples and schools, invisible to all but their own kind. And while we may express dismay and perhaps disgust for the prejudice and injustice of such a system, we are seemingly unaware that Canada, too, has a population that has been forced into secrecy and invisibility — intersex people.
An intersex person is an individual who is born with a combination of male and female genitals, either internally, externally, or both. Their genital tissues are healthy, and without disease. But in almost all cases, they have been born into a world that has no room for their physical sexual ambiguity. And so, despite the lack of any type of threat to their physical health, the common treatment in intersex conditions recognized at birth is to assign a sex to them, which is accomplished by repeated and progressive surgical and hormonal interventions that often last well into adolescence.
In most cases, parents are advised by medical experts not to tell their child, even as an adult, that they were born intersex.
Considerable evidence is now emerging that many intersex people struggle with, and resist, the sex to which they have been assigned, particularly as they enter puberty when hormones not in accord with their sex assignment begin to direct their sexual desires. Rather than being left to grow into adulthood to discover the orientation of their sexual desires, social categories are quite literally forced onto them via surgeries and hormone therapies.
The emotional and social lives of intersex people are complex and frequently deeply tormented, because they live in a world that insists that their sexual ambiguity or bi-sexuality is both perverse and chosen rather than the natural state in which they were born.
They are forced into secrecy about the true state of their sexuality because the social world that surrounds them will stigmatize and ostracize them if their true identity as an intersex person (expressed as homosexuality, bi-sexuality, etc.) is revealed.
In the past 20 years, the intersex community has begun to resist the current social norms that force them into the dichotomous categories of heterosexual males or females which frequently result in deep harm to their physical and psychological well-being.
Due to the closeted nature of intersex, it is difficult to determine precise statistics on how many people are intersex. Medical rates indicate that in one out of about 1,700 births the genitalia are so atypical that a specialist in sex differentiation is immediately called in — that is approximately 20,000 people in Canada.
But in many cases, the nature of the mixed genitals is a) internal, thus unobserved at birth, or, b) not extreme enough to warrant immediate intervention. Unless the child requires medical diagnostic tests for some other reason, many intersex babies are not recognized at birth. Sometimes, it is only discovered during adulthood as a result of non-related medical tests, or during autopsies. So while the rates are difficult to determine, we know that they are considerably higher than one in about 1,700.
It is with growing concern that I have followed the conversations emerging from some Christian contexts regarding Bill 18. Too much of their tone and content further reinforces the severe social stigma attached to any intersex person. What does the Christian community have to say to, and for, intersex people? A Christian theology or ethic that, either unintentionally or willfully, ignores the biological fact that some people are born with mixed genitals, and thus non-heterosexual orientations of various kinds, runs contrary to one of the primary themes of the Biblical text — that as Christians we are called to seek justice for the oppressed, the marginalized, the ignored, and the invisible of our society.
Let us practice the justice to which we are called, actively seeking the safety and protection of the oppressed in our society — which is what Bill 18 is trying to accomplish.
Val Hiebert lives in Mitchell and teaches sociology at Providence University College.
By Patrick Boily
The Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba is supposed to be the party of limited government and expanded individual freedoms and equality of opportunity. Religious leaders are supposed to be the cornerstones of their communities. Unfortunately, with their stances on Bill 18, they have shown themselves to be the party of government control and frightened leaders.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said it best as to why conservatives should support gay marriage and equal rights. "I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a conservative," he said.
Too often conservatives espouse values of freedom from government interference in the realm of economic opportunities but forget these same values when it comes to social rights. Masked by the veil of religious freedoms, they see laws such as Bill 18 as attacks against rights.
Bills that seek to expand and empower social rights and freedoms are analogous to those expanding economic freedoms. If you believe the government has limited rights in dictating how you spend your money or your right to establish a business, it is simply logical to believe that the government has no right to tell you who you can love and build a life with.
Nothing in Bill 18, not even the clause ensuring the existence of gay-straight alliances, is an attack on religious freedoms. Bill 18 reinforces equality of opportunity and individual freedoms to expressions and association. It ensures that every student can have a safe environment to live out their most formative years of their lives. In these formative years, the rights to free association and expression are keys to success.
In a joint letter to Premier Greg Selinger, religious leaders argued that guaranteeing students the right to create gay-straight alliances in religious schools is analogous to ensuring students have the right to demand non-kosher food. This argument is as weak as it disrespectful.
Why shouldn’t students be allowed to challenge religious doctrine in respectful dialogue? Are schools meant to be an indoctrination of 13 years or a time to sharpen critical thinking and reasoned debate skills?
Faith and beliefs that cannot stand the test of argument and challenges are blind and weak. In their letter, religious leaders showed that they believe the act of children discussing and challenging aspects of their faith as a threat to their right to existence. The leaders should see the opportunity to debate and discuss tenants of their faith with their students as an opportunity to build real faith.
The Progressive Conservative Party and religious leaders lost an opportunity to show that they believed in all Manitoban’s right to a quality education. Unfortunately it decided it would rather succumb to fear and of fewer rights.
Patrick Boily is a former Manitoba Progressive Conservative staff member and is currently living in Toronto.
Consider my summaries of selected pro-Bill 18 points and why some of us regard them as myths.
First, Bill 18 is only about providing safe learning environments in all Manitoba schools. If so, it might mandate anti-bullying clubs (ABCs). Critics of Bill 18 are as opposed to bullying as are its supporters. But when Bill 18 mandates that all Manitoba schools must accommodate gay-straight alliances (GSAs) if one student requests such, then it’s teaching our children LGBTQ behaviour is normal (as some LGBTQ strategists recommended in the 1990s).
Secondly, sexual orientation, like race, is set at birth and science proves that it can’t be changed. The American Psychiatric Association in its diagnostic and statistical manual listed same-sex attraction and behaviour as a sexual dysfunction (see the DSM I & II) before the LGBTQ lobby politically conquered the APA. Since this LGBTQ lobby’s political success, APA has issued various studies that "prove scientifically" that their views are correct. Today the DSM IV lists more than 60 other sexual preferences as dysfunctional.
When Bill 18 mandates that "all sexual orientations" be protected in our schools, it really cannot mean that — many of them are Criminal Code violations. Those studies which argue that sexual orientations can never be changed seem not to know three friends of mine. The first two as heterosexuals happily married and started families. Then they left their wives and kids and joined the gay community. Another friend spent several years in the gay community, then left that "lifestyle," got married and started a normal family. (See more at Ex-GayTruth.com).
Thirdly, critics of Bill 18 are all religious zealots, filled with hate, bigotry and homophobia, and want to bully LBGTQ students. It’s a little childish to attribute motives to one’s debate opponents. I attended the Feb. 24 meeting of information and prayer at Steinbach Christian High School and visited Southland years ago. I heard no expression of hate there. Yes, the DSM IV lists more than 600 "phobias." But note: "The Associated Press revealed recently that its new stylebook will no longer include the words ‘homophobia’ and ‘Islamophobia’ in political or social contexts." All "phobias" are mental dysfunctions. Regarding LGBTQ practice as immoral is not a mental dysfunction. Rational concerns are not hate or "phobias."
Finally, Bill 18 does not infringe on anyone’s freedom of religion, and if it does, then that is warranted to protect human rights. Sorry, Prof. Donn Short (Bill 18’s infringements on religious belief are reasonable, Free Press, March 19), does not our Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantee freedom of religion as the first human right listed? If some religion were to mandate violations of Canada’s Criminal Code, that would not warrant an exemption. Short asserts "any speech that delegitimizes and rejects a particular group in the eyes of the majority would not be permitted." Really?! Then if a professor "delegitimizes and rejects" as ignorant hateful bigots any Sikhs, Jews, Copts, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, aboriginals or any other minority groups that believe in a Creator (where that is not the community’s majority view) could therefore "not be permitted" and might be charged with "hate speech." What an Orwellian world!
Canada recruited settlers to Manitoba when there was a risk that the U.S. might take over the Prairies up to 54’40’’. Short fails to appreciate how Canada recruited these settlers of various faiths by a promise of freedom of religion and freedom to teach their children according to their faith.
For many of Manitoba’s 59 independent schools, that means teaching that sex acts are designed only for married husband-and-wife couples, a view that would necessarily be contradicted by all gay-straight alliances. Hence, the warning by the former director of constitutional affairs for Manitoba that the Supreme Court of Canada might find Bill 18 unconstitutional at this point. This is not trivial.
Last month the SCC ruled in favour of Whatcott’s freedom of religion rights on some flyers, but ruled that others did constitute "hate speech." When might the SCC rule as "hate speech" a teaching that sex acts are designed only for married husband-and-wife couples? Any faith-based school in Manitoba that teaches this view of sex acts should be free to do so, without anyone suggesting that this constitutes "hate speech." Nor should they be compelled by the province to accommodate student organizations that teach the opposite. Our province is already flooded with secularists who dominate our media, academe, politicians, etc., who teach the opposite.
Why can’t we simply support anti-bullying clubs (ABCs). Would they not help provide the school safety we all want for all our kids, including LGBTQ kids? No Bill 18 critics want to bully anyone.
Al Hiebert, PhD is former executive director of Christian Higher Education Canada.
Rabbi Ari Ellis
Earlier this month, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, author of Wrestling with God and Men, took part in Limmud, our community-wide festival of Jewish learning. Among the topics that Rabbi Greenberg spoke about were his views on homosexuality and Jewish law.
In a book review of Wrestling with God and Men, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a Chicago Orthodox rabbi known for fostering an inclusive view of Orthodox Judaism, rejects the book as a valid Orthodox approach to homosexuality. Nevertheless, he affirms Steve Greenberg′s "importance as a voice within the Orthodox community" and calls him "a brilliant, thoughtful and courageous rabbi." He called the book "a brilliant work of creativity and research."
As Rabbi of Herzlia-Adas Yeshurun, Winnipeg’s largest Orthodox congregation, we were honoured to host Rabbi Greenberg on Shabbat afternoon. Although some of Rabbi Greenberg’s personal views on homosexuality and Jewish law are outside of mainstream Orthodoxy, which he himself freely admits, I nevertheless learned a great deal from his visit.
In particular, I found his personal struggles and the challenges he has faced as someone who is homosexual and who desires to remain within the Orthodox community especially moving. Many others in his position have abandoned Orthodoxy or have had similar experiences of not being welcome at Orthodox institutions. I resolved to make our synagogue a place that all Jews can come to explore and experience meaningful Jewish living.
I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t know what the future will bring. But I do know that we cannot continue to close our eyes and pretend that homosexuality doesn’t exist within the Jewish community. As we move forward, we are going to have to reconcile this very real phenomenon with the norms of Jewish law and tradition.
As Orthodox Jews, as a matter of faith, we believe in the divinity of the Bible, of both of the Written and the Oral Law, just as Rabbi Altein of Chabad of Winnipeg asserted in his letter to Premier Greg Selinger as reported by The Canadian Press. Jewish law, therefore, cannot change to reflect each and every latest fad or trend. I do not believe, however, that having a gay-straight alliance is similar to having a group for Jewish students who wish to promote the eating of pork.
At our synagogue we don’t judge individuals or ask someone whether they observe Shabbat or Kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws) before welcoming them into our congregation. Everyone is welcome to attend and be a part of our community. But welcoming someone into our community doesn’t mean that we endorse all their personal choices.
Rabbi Altein claims that Orthodox Judaism "rejects homosexuality." Such a statement, however, is not entirely true or clear. Leviticus 18:22 states "Thou shall not lie with a male as one lies with a woman." Orthodox Judaism views all male and female same-sex sexual interactions as prohibited. But what about sexual orientation? How does Orthodox Judaism relate to an individual’s same sex attraction? Do we embrace it? Do we reject it?
In the Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community, over 200 leading Orthodox Rabbis, educators, and community leaders have affirmed that it is critical to emphasize that Jewish law only prohibits homosexual acts; it does not prohibit orientation or feelings of same-sex attraction and nothing in the Bible devalues the human beings who struggle with them. Heterosexual marriage is the ideal model and sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression.
Nevertheless, the sensitivity and understanding we express for Jews with other sexual orientations in no way diminishes that principle.
Furthermore, demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Jewish law. Also among the 12 clauses discussed in this document, as Orthodox Jews we affirm the religious right of those with a homosexual orientation to reject therapeutic approaches to attempt to change their sexual orientation that they deem futile or dangerous.
And, most relevant to our discussion of the anti-bullying legislation, the document emphasizes that Jews with homosexual orientations or same sex-attractions must be welcomed as full members of our synagogues and school communities.
Also, the statement of principles notes, Jews with a homosexual orientation confront serious emotional and psychological challenges to the point of greatly increasing the risk of suicide. Rabbis and communities and mental-health professionals are urged to be sensitive to this reality and provide responsible assistance to those dealing with these challenges.
Therefore, as an Orthodox Rabbi and a Jewish educator, it is my belief that a gay-straight alliance could be a welcome institution in our schools and communities. In fact, I would want to encourage Jewish teenagers with a homosexual orientation to seek guidance from their Rabbis and teachers in dealing with their struggles within a Jewish framework, instead of turning elsewhere for help.
The statement of principles leaves the decision as to whether to be open about one’s sexual orientation to each individual, and urges them to consider both their own needs and the needs of the community. And we oppose on ethical and moral grounds the "outing" of individuals who want to remain private and also coercing those who desire to be open about their orientation to keep it hidden.
For those who choose to come "out of the closet," I share Rabbi Altein’s concern that a gay-straight alliance could be used by schools or students to promote practices or espouse views contrary to Jewish law and tradition violating our freedom of religion.
Nevertheless, I believe that it could have an even greater potential for being a place for guidance and support for us all as we move into these uncertain and uncharted waters.
Dennis W. Hiebert
"No one is so terribly deceived as he who does not himself suspect it."
— Soren Kierkegaard
Freedom of religion is a treasured attribute of Canadian society that can become problematic during social change. The closer we look at freedom of religion, the more complicated it gets, and the less likely we are to claim it simplistically as an unqualified good.
The "fundamental freedoms" of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Sec. 2) are not unlimited human rights. They are subject to "reasonable limits" (Sec. 1). As the popular sayings go, my freedom ends where yours begins, and so my right to swing my fist ends at your nose.
For example, the recent Whatcott case affirmed that we do not have the absolute "freedom of expression" to speak what we regard as truth in a hateful manner. Of course, while the Charter does not go so far as to require that we speak what we regard as truth in love, a certain more sacred document does.
Theoretically, freedom of religion is one of what are called negative human rights, those rights that governments should not take away. They include freedom of expression, freedom from slavery, the right to a fair trial, and so on, and tend to be emphasized in the West.
Positive human rights are those that governments are obliged to provide, such as health, education, and all forms of social security.
More specifically, freedom of religion at the individual level means the right that each person has to hold or not hold a religion, to change religion, and to urge someone else to change their religion.
At the collective level, freedom of religion means that communities of like-minded people have, among other things, the right to withhold some social statuses or social securities from some people according to their religious beliefs and convictions.
Obviously, this calls up the question of whether religious rights take precedence over all other human rights. A ready example is whether all women everywhere have civil, political, and social rights equal to men, or whether religion has the right to subordinate women.
In Canada, freedom of religion means that any religious group has the right to build their own houses of worship and start their own faith-based schools.
If they happen to be fundamentalist Muslims, however, do they have the right to practise their Shariah law to whatever extent they want, including honour killings for sexual indiscretions and hand amputations for petty theft? How would their appeals to freedom of religion then be heard in the wider community? Would wider community resistance to such practices be evidence of religious persecution?
It is perfectly understandable when and why some groups claim their right to religious freedom, but they ought to do so with utmost discretion and discernment, and not play it like some sort of trump card.
They could easily come to regret their facile appeals if and when circumstances are reversed, and they want to insist that other human rights take precedence over some other group’s freedom of religion.
For example, in a document concerning female genital mutilation, the UN in 2008 wrote that "international law stipulates that freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs might be subject to limitations necessary to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of others."
In the Canadian Charter, freedom of religion does not automatically take precedence over the right not to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment (Sec. 12), the right to life, liberty, and security of person (Sec. 7), or perhaps more pertinent for some Manitobans today, freedom of peaceful assembly and association (Sec. 2).
Furthermore, freedom of religion is not an equally pressing issue for all world religions. Islam is an exclusive, proselytizing, monotheistic religion, like Christianity. To that extent, both Islam and Christianity share a similar position relative to human rights in general and freedom of religion in particular.
Ironically, both of them tend to both run afoul of it and appeal to it more frequently than inclusive, non-proselytizing, polytheistic religions like Hinduism and atheistic religions like Buddhism. The less aggressive any given religion is, the less likely it is to contend with issues of religious freedom.
With the waning of Christian control of culture that characterized Christendom in Western societies, Christianity has been called to accommodate to religious pluralism, which is the co-existence of a diversity of belief systems within one society.
Paradoxically, Christians are now frequently reduced to appealing to the principle of pluralism as a defence for their own freedom of religion.
But contemporary Western culture has moved beyond the tolerance of pluralism to an emerging ethic of inclusivism, which challenges the traditionally exclusive character of Christianity even further. How should Christians respond?
Christian missions have for a generation or two been emphasizing the need to contextualize the gospel in non-Western cultures so as to facilitate its reception there. Granted, debates about the virtue of contexualization compared to the vice of compromise continue. But perhaps it is time for Christians to apply the principles of contexualization here in our own increasingly post-Christian society. Or perhaps it is simply time for them to emphasize some of the strongest, over-arching ethical imperatives of the Bible, such as sacrificial hospitality, applied love of neighbour, and simple grace.
Such practises would not only be deeply Christian, but would also be a more winsome Christian engagement with our inclusionary culture than pronouncing and enacting exclusionary, adversarial judgements in the name of freedom of religion.
Dennis W. Hiebert PhD is a professor of sociology and chair of the department of arts and sciences, Providence University College.