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Anti-bullying bill a fight fraught with danger

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Welcome to Bill 18, the Rubik's Cube of Manitoba politics.

In any normal political debate, proponents and opponents wage battle knowing there are a limited number of possible outcomes. You weigh the risks and rewards and off you go. In the case of Bill 18, the NDP government's controversial anti-bullying bill, there are so many potential outcomes, it is impossible to predict how this debate ends.

Bill 18 brings in new definitions of, and proscriptions for, bullying. Its most controversial measure is a requirement that schools receiving public funding allow, if asked, the creation of anti-bullying groups, including so-called gay-straight alliances.

Education Minister Nancy Allan is resolute that asking schools to accommodate those groups is reasonable; many faith-based schools are not so sure. Many believe there is a fight coming, both in the courts and, for politicians, in the court of public opinion.

First, to issues of legality. Critics claim Bill 18 puts their constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of religion in jeopardy. Truth be told, there are many competing constitutional freedoms and rights at work here.

In terms of fundamental freedoms, you could make a case this bill affects freedom of religion, expression, thought, assembly and conscience. You could even make an argument, and perhaps someone will, the legal right to life, liberty and security of the person is on the table. The courts, if asked, would have to determine which of those freedoms is paramount.

However, it's not clear there will be a court challenge. Whether it is fought in the legal or political arena, this is a battle fraught with peril. And many of those now threatening to take this to court may find their resolve wilting in the face of increasing public scrutiny.

Opposing Bill 18 on the basis it violates freedom of religion is a nice, neat but not altogether satisfying argument. The courts will require something more detailed, which will require opponents to not only enunciate legal arguments but practical ones, as well. It will put them in a position of not only opposing the law, but also being labelled as homophobic. Or worse.

In Ontario, the Catholic Church threatened a constitutional challenge when the Liberal government introduced similar legislation last year. To date, however, no formal legal challenge has been launched. Moreover, the church was embarrassed when groups within its ranks, such as the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, came out in support of the law.

The Ontario experience reveals a truism of debates about religion: Congregations are generally more progressive than their leadership. Politically astute religious leaders would prefer that not be emphasized in any great detail.

And what of politics? As it is for churches, this will be a difficult issue for politicians to manage.

It is fair to assume that in introducing Bill 18, the province believes it is not only the right thing to do, but also something that will be supported by a majority of Manitobans. Even so, last week Sikh, Muslim and Jewish leaders wrote letters to Allan expressing their opposition to Bill 18. Implied in these letters is a threat to create a backlash that will hurt the NDP at election time. You might think the Tories stand to benefit from all that religious outrage. Unfortunately, Tory Leader Brian Pallister has his own problems.

To date, the Tories have been dead quiet about Bill 18. They are concerned that by "limiting who you protect from bullying, you have a less inclusive bill." They prefer "a bill that protects all kids from bullying."

That cautious language is a pretty good indication the Tories want no part of Bill 18. At least not on the front lines. The party script is an attempt to muster some gentle opposition to the law that stops short of definitively opposing the provision that would force schools to accommodate GSA groups.

To that end, sources have confirmed the Tory caucus has been instructed to refrain from commenting on Bill 18. Even ubiquitous Steinbach MLA Kelvin Goertzen, the party's education critic, has yet to comment on Bill 18.

The Tories know the road back to government requires an incursion into "Fortress Winnipeg," the solid block of NDP seats within the city limits. The hope now for the Tories is that passive opposition to Bill 18 will earn the support of religious communities in a bid to breach the fortress walls.

That strategy is unlikely to succeed. The Tories right now are doing just enough to rankle core supporters, but not nearly enough to earn support from disgruntled religious communities in Winnipeg. They have decided to avoid the risk inherent in Bill 18, and thus forgo any hope of big political reward.

However, that is just one of many possible scenarios. The only thing anyone can say with any certainty is when it comes to Bill 18, there is more than enough risk to go around.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 18, 2013 B1

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