However flawed the NDP government’s proposed anti-bullying legislation may be — and it is — provincially funded private schools that oppose Bill 18 on religious grounds are building their arguments on sandy soil.
As outlined by the Manitoba government’s website, there are two kinds of independent (and/or religious) schools in this province — those that use public funds and those that don’t.
Funded independent schools are required to implement provincially mandated curriculum, hire Manitoba certified teachers and meet other provincial requirements to maintain their publicly funded status.
Currently there are at least 62 publicly funded private/independent schools in Manitoba that fall under these requirements — in both rural and urban communities.
As part of the Manitoba curriculum, these schools must teach subjects that may be at odds with the religious beliefs held dear by the community in which they serve. For example, as part of its curriculum for Grade 12 biology, the Manitoba government requires high school instructors to teach evolutionary theory and biodiversity, with specific course work on Darwinian theory, convergent and divergent evolution, and evolutionary trends.
This, according to the government’s 2011 document, “Grade 12 Biology, A Foundation for Implementation,” available online.
This in spite of the fact that the scientific theory goes against strongly held beliefs that have their roots in religious doctrine — simply stated, life, the earth and everything in the universe were created by a supernatural being, not through natural selection as evolutionary theory suggests.
While required to teach evolution, at least a few publicly funded private religious schools in this province have chosen to do so while contrasting the theory of evolution with creationism in the very same class, as a counter argument.
And they are free to do so. There is nothing stopping a religious school from teaching creationism, as long as the Manitoba curriculum is also followed.
The province’s 44 non-funded independent schools are under no such requirements, and are free to hire whomever they choose and teach whatever curriculum their administrations deem appropriate, though their operations are monitored by Manitoba Education. Children enrolled in a non-funded independent school still must receive a standard of education equivalent to that provided in a public school, but they are not required to teach evolution.
What does this have to do with Bill 18?
Under the section 41 “Student activities and organizations,” the wording of the bill would force schools in this province to accommodate students who want to establish and lead activities and organizations that promote gender equality, anti-racism, awareness and understanding and respect “for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.”
It would also allow these student groups to use the name “gay-straight alliance” or any other name that is “consistent with the promotion of a positive school environment that is inclusive and accepting of all pupils.”
In our opinion, Bill 18 defines bullying too broadly, and thus the interpretation is open for abuse. It paradoxically singles out the gay, lesbian and bisexual minorities within the population, and ignores other at-risk students who also face torment — those with the “wrong” body shape, culture, income, etc. We feel the legislation could use some editing.
However, for the leadership of Manitoba’s independent schools and even federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to suggest that the government is infringing on religious freedoms ignores the fact that publicly funded institutions have already been teaching subjects they disagree with in order to access those public funds.
If teaching evolution is acceptable, why not allow students to form their own clubs, whatever they may be, or be called? Are religious beliefs so fragile that they can’t withstand a small LGBT group within their midst?
To our mind, these institutions have at least two options — stop taking public funds, or work around the provincial requirements, as many already have regarding the teaching of evolutionary theory.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 12, 2013