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Debate over Bill 18 is a question of whom to protect

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Bill 18 is provincial legislation intended to prevent bullying. For its proponents, it is an extension of laws that protect vulnerable members of society from physical and emotional abuse.

Its detractors fear it will force religious schools to permit the formation of groups that promote equality for all, including gays and lesbians. Accommodating such a group, they claim, is an attack on their constitutionally protected religious freedom, as it would force them to compromise long-held doctrinal beliefs.

This feels like this is a choice about who is more worthy of protection: vulnerable children, or organized religions.

Few would dispute that, at least most of the time, government has no place legislating the practise of one’s beliefs. Neither would many people disagree that we have an obligation to protect our children from violence and neglect. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms already protects our rights to freedom of choice and non-discrimination.

Problems happen, though, when one’s free choices meet another’s right not to be harmed by those choices. And anti-gay rhetoric is harmful. Whether it is as overt and organized as hate literature or as subtle as a ban on support groups, permitting such intolerance can be more harmful to a vulnerable teenager than forcing a Catholic school to provide birth control for its students would be to that school or its philosophy.

Thankfully, the schools in the St. James School Division support the kinds of clubs and groups this bill is meant to protect. Our public schools make efforts to ensure students are welcome and as comfortable as possible. For a young person who is already feeling different from everyone else, peer support could be a lifeline. I am pleased that my children are able to attend schools that promote and encourage tolerance of all kinds of people.

Forcing a religion to support or endorse something that goes against its fundamental beliefs is wrong. But forcing a child into the closet hurts that child. And discrimination in the form of intolerance is a sin that is especially grievous when the victim is a child.

Perhaps the government should not be legislating tolerance. But the discord over Bill 18 proves that it is necessary, if only to give the most vulnerable in society protection that is not already recognized as a moral obligation.

Jennifer Dunsford is a community correspondent for St. James-Assiniboia.

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