On Ontario Catholic GSAs: Nobody has a right to teach bigotry.

Posted on December 19, 2011

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Clever image stolen from Slap Upside the Head.

I’ve flown from Scotland to Ontario for a two-week Christmas with my family. This means that I don’t get to be taken seriously in any environmental discussion for at least the time that the Earth’s forests take to absorb my massive transatlantic carbon emissions, so now that I’m no longer in Scotland writing thousands of words about the multi-level perspective, I might as well write about Ontario things. Specifically, the ongoing saga of the Catholic Board of Education and their insistence on homophobic policy.

Some progress appears to have been made in this matter since I left. From my perspective, it seems to have become something of an election issue, and Tim Hudak’s homophobic ad campaign, which tried to capitalize on that, may have even lost him the election. This bodes well for the tolerance and general decency of the Ontarian electorate, and probably helped Dalton McGuinty table an anti-bullying bill that will require Catholic schools to have support groups for gay students, though it weasels out on their names. So far, (mostly) so good.

Unfortunately, the push-back from the religious right has begun. This recent National Post Article shows that some conservative Catholics are getting all upset about their religious rights to discriminate based on sexual orientation:

“Ms. Pierre said […] ‘We would not tolerate negative speech toward anyone based on his or her sexual orientation in our schools,’ she said. ‘Nevertheless, we don’t want society telling the Church what is proper behaviour and what it should teach.’

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says homosexual behaviour is ‘intrinsically disordered’ and ‘under no circumstance can it be approved.’ However, the Catechism also teaches that homosexuals ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.'”

The most common reply in the comment thread of the above-linked article is the a very common fiscally-grounded argument:

“Here’s a suggestion, Catholics: do what the public tells you, or stop receiving public funds.”

I used to like this argument, but now I find it deeply unsatisfactory. It’s not that it’s a bad argument. It has all the hallmarks of a highly effective talking point. It’s specific, policy-oriented, and strategic. It’s also largely unanswerable. The best response the Catholic School Board’s supporters have been able to muster is some gibberish about how their tax dollars somehow grant their school board the right to openly flout human rights law. I doubt that even the people making this argument really believe it. Public institutions must obey the law regardless of how their users or backers feel about specific laws in question. So the argument from public financing has been largely effective. And yet I dislike it.

The reason I dislike it is because it concedes too much. Even if entirely successful, this argument makes LGBT rights a matter of mere fiscal prudence. It implies that the open teaching of homophobia and intentional marginalization of gay students will be entirely acceptable if only their parents use private funds to do so. If this is the only argument we use, then we risk precisely this outcome. It’s important to keep in mind that Dalton McGuinty is primarily a well-meaning coward, and will be looking for a way out of the situation that does not alienate conservative Catholics. We might, therefore, see some kind of tax rebate for parents who pay tuition to private Catholic schools as a way out of the argument that would not require the Liberals to take a stand against religious bigotry. According to the fiscal argument, such financial sleight of hand would make institutionalized discrimination and the resultant bullying entirely acceptable.

Such practices can never be acceptable, regardless of how they are funded. Try substituting different kinds of human rights for gay rights into the situation, and the fiscal argument appears extremely conciliatory. Would we allow racist parents to pass their hatred onto their children through home-schooling? Would we permit a private school to teach xenophobia? Would we accept it if a high school demanded its students live according to 1950s gender roles, so long as it accepted no public funding to do so? No, no, and no. So why is it even remotely fathomable that financial independence could license an entire school board to teach that some ten percent of its students are ‘intrinsically disordered’? The fact that this is even a question is evidence that the gay rights movement still has a long way to go. Homophobia, regardless of what ancient tome is used to justify it, should be seen as a fringe perspective that is absolutely unacceptable to teach to children.

I’m normally an advocate of balancing the ideal with the attainable, but when basic human rights are concerned it is no time to be merely strategic. While this debate is still open, the pro-gay majority of Ontarians need to push harder on this issue: Nobody, regardless of faith, culture, or any other factor, has a right to teach homophobia to their children. Even private schools have a responsibility to teach curricula that promote public goods. Homophobia is the opposite of a public good. The fiscal argument’s effectiveness means that it should not be abandoned, but it should be used only as tactical support for a stronger position: No school, regardless of where it receives its funding, should have hate and discrimination in its curriculum or policies.

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