Before Premier Jim Prentice hit “pause” on Thursday, a backlash was growing within Alberta’s governing Progressive Conservatives as the party was stuck during the past week in an emotional debate of its own making and tinkering with a bill that would govern the creation of peer-support groups for gay school children.
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Introduced on Monday, Bill 10 would allow the province’s school boards to reject students’ requests to create a peer-support group known as a gay-straight alliance. Proponents say the groups reduce bullying and save lives.
The Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect our Children would have directed the province’s Education Minister to help create the clubs for school children if they were rejected at the local level.
Where it began
The debate over Bill 10 became stuck on finding a balance between the rights of gay students and the rights of parents that are enshrined in Alberta’s Human Rights Act, unique to the prairie province.
Created in 2009 by the socially conservative wing of the provincial Tories, parental rights require schools to inform parents when religion, sexuality or sexual orientation are to be discussed in class. Parents can then ask for their children to be pulled from those classes.
Championed by former MLA Ted Morton, the concept of parental rights arose from U.S. Christian groups. Mr. Prentice said he has been told the clause is “one of the most discriminatory pieces of legislation in our country.”
The Blakeman Bill
While Alberta’s urban school boards have several peer-support groups for LGBT students, few are found in the province’s rural areas and none in Catholic school boards. The head of Edmonton’s Catholic school board opposes the groups.
A campaign to support the peer-groups began in early 2014, when Liberal MLA Kent Hehr introduced a non-binding motion requiring school boards to support the groups. The motion was defeated.
In mid-November, Liberal house leader Laurie Blakeman tried again with a private members bill. Her Bill 202 would require the creation of the peer-support groups when requested by students. The bill would also strip from the Human Rights Act the discussion of sexual orientation as a reason to remove children from classrooms.
Introduction of Bill 10
Mr. Prentice has promised free votes on moral issues, and it became clear his caucus could defeat Ms. Blakeman’s bill. The Premier has called Bill 202 “too divisive.” In its place the government introduced Bill 10, which would give school boards the final word on peer-support groups.
The Tories have said they want school boards to be able to govern themselves because trustees are democratically elected.
On Wednesday, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said the problem with Bill 10 was “all about balance, balancing parental rights and religious freedom with equality and the rights of LGBTQ students.”
Where it goes from here
Amendments to Bill 10 would empower Education Minister Gordon Dirks to create the clubs even if school boards said no. However, those clubs would presumably be off school grounds, leading to charges that Bill 10 would segregate gay children.
The situation was further muddled because Mr. Dirks has been a pastor for an evangelical church that says homosexuality is a sin and calls on gays to repent. Mr. Dirks preached there more than a dozen times and did not contradict his church’s view on sexual issues.
Mr. Prentice admitted on Thursday that Bill 10 added to the divisions and did not solve any. He has delayed the final vote on the bill indefinitely. It will stay dormant until 2015, and the Tories say they will conduct consultations on the constitutionality of mandating gay support clubs and gauge public support for abolishing parental rights.