Question: I’ve been following the Edmonton Catholic school board’s tortured discussion around creating a policy for transgendered students, and I’m horrified by some of the comments I am hearing from the trustees. I am a gay teacher. Could my school board fire me for being gay? This is the 21st century.
Answer: The discussions currently underway in Edmonton Catholic are very difficult ones in the context of a Roman Catholic school board. In Alberta, Roman Catholic separate school boards have a constitutional right to exist as publicly funded school boards, respecting their Catholic faith. This is well established under law.
That also means that a Catholic board has the right to ensure that its teachers respect and reflect religious doctrine and, over time, various employment decisions have been made and referred to the courts and judgments rendered. A teacher employed by a Catholic board who is divorced, or a teacher who gives birth out of wedlock—we know the case law on these circumstances. We also know of instances in which a gay teacher was fired by a Catholic board for being gay, or in which a transgendered teacher was denied continuing employment by a Catholic board.
A Catholic board certainly has an argument that such employment decisions are protected by their constitutional rights. In recent times, we have not had teachers in these circumstances initiate a process through the Board of Reference, and possibly the courts, to force a judgment on the limits of a Catholic board’s constitutional rights. Of course, about one-third of our members are employed by Catholic school boards.
In some respects, the issue is not so much about the constitutional rights of a Catholic school board. After the Edmonton Catholic school trustees’ debate on policy for transgendered students and, in particular, comments by one trustee that transgendered students have a "mental disorder" (and that his perspective represents Catholic church doctrine), the question alive on social media is whether Catholic boards should continue to exist in the 21st century as fully funded public boards.
Some have suggested that the constitutional rights of Catholic boards should be removed in order to establish a single, unified public school system. In such circumstances, the argument would be that parents who want their children to be educated in accordance with Catholic church doctrine could establish private schools for that purpose, just as other faith groups do.
In 1998, Newfoundland ended the constitutional rights of minority religion school boards—a constitutional amendment is required for such a thing to happen. In Alberta, the legislature would need to pass a resolution, and both houses of the Canadian Parliament (the House of Commons and the Senate) would need to do the same.
Education Minister David Eggen has made it clear to the Edmonton Catholic school trustees that they need to pass a coherent policy relating to transgendered students. But expect this and similar issues to continue to be difficult for Catholic school boards. The requirement that school boards, including Catholic boards, establish gay-straight alliances is another area where some would say that church doctrine and Albertan’s mainstream expectations are not entirely consistent.
So this is a file that will likely get more attention in the weeks and months to come, especially in the area of competing constitutional rights.
Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Gordon Thomas at Barnett House (email@example.com).