Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A response to Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto

On Monday, May 28, 2012, Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto and President of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, released an official response to Ontario's proposed anti-bullying legislation, Bill 13 and 14.

The statement is a remarkable work of spin.

Essentially, the Catholic Church is denying students in the separate school system in Ontario the right to form any group that contains the word "gay" in its name. Yet Cardinal Collins attempts to portray the Catholic school board as the victim, because of the "proposed imposition of the GSA methodology on Catholic schools".

Cardinal Collins is wrong. Neither Bill 13 (Accepting Schools Act, 2012) nor Bill 14 (Anti-Bullying Act, 2012) state that all Catholic schools must form Gay-Straight Alliances on the off chance that some statistically insignificant minority of students will bully an even smaller number of individuals because they are perceived (perhaps incorrectly) as being potentially gay.

The bills state that where there is a desire from the student body to create such groups, schools cannot forbid their formation.

The difference is crucial. No one is imposing anything. The law addresses the arbitrary and unjust abuse of power that has denied Catholic students' right to freedom of association. Put another way, the anti-bully legislation removes the Catholic school boards' bully pulpit.

The missive also contains several misleading statements, if not outright lies:
  • "Those who share those views will no doubt wish to use the GSA methodology. They are certainly free to do so." They are not. Not if those who share those views are students in Ontario Catholic schools. Hence the lack of a single GSA group in any separate school in Ontario. Diversity and freedom of expression are rigorously suppressed.
  • "I question, however, why provincial legislation should make this particular method normative in a Catholic school." It is required, Cardinal Collins, because students are clamouring for this particular method, and they are being thwarted at every turn.
  • "If the point is that there is something unacceptable about those Catholic principles, then I find that troubling." If the point is that GSA clubs cannot be permitted because homosexuals are "intrinsically disordered", then I find that troubling.

Further on, Cardinal Collins asks five questions:
  • Why is a piece of provincial legislation being used to micromanage the naming of student clubs?
No piece of provincial legislation is micromanaging anything. No students are required to name their groups anything. The legislation simply protects the rights of students so that separate school boards can no longer censor student groups to pretend that homosexuals do not exist, or that there are no heterosexuals who fully support their gay friends in finding happiness and fulfilment.
  • Why are Catholics not free to design their own methods to fight bullying [...]? Why must they instead be compelled to accept a particular method that comes from a different approach to the great issues of life?
This question is an exercise in misdirection. Catholics are free to design their own methods. If students want a Catholic anti-bullying support group, under the legislation the bishops may name one, administrators can create the charter, and students are free to join it. But the separate school board cannot ban other means of addressing bullying, pretending that Church created approaches are the only ones.
  • Why should the power of provincial law be used to override that legitimate adult authority?
Because adult authority in Catholic schools is being abused to contravene existing provincial law regarding educational standards, Ontario Human Rights legislation, and even the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The authority the adults wield in this case is anything but legitimate.
  • With the principle established that the legitimate local authority is nullified in this case, then is any student free to introduce any program, any club, or any advocacy group relating to any issue?

Groups whose purpose is to advocate violence are not and should not be permitted. Groups whose purpose is to advocate the prevention of violence should be permitted, but are not in Catholic schools. This is not a difficult concept to comprehend.
  • Is a GSA the most effective method to help students being targeted by bullies?
I don't know. Perhaps, perhaps not. Let's permit these groups to form and find out.

The main theme of the letter is how the Catholic Church is an innocent victim of targeted persecution by the Ontario government. This is ridiculous. Catholics are the sole religious group in Ontario to receive full funding for their sectarian school system, and yet they have the audacity to complain vociferously when they must respect the basic Charter rights of their students. Bills 13 and 14 do NOT entail an "extraordinary privileging of one particular way of dealing with bullying and personal support" - they forbid extraordinary censorship and suppression regarding one particular way of dealing with bullying and personal support.

The penultimate paragraph is a variation of the famous poem by Martin Niemöller, "First they came".  "Please consider the implications for all when legislation is enacted that overrides the deeply held beliefs of any faith community in our province, and intrudes on its freedom to act in a way that is in accord with its principles of conscience. If it happens to us, it can happen to you, on this and other issues." The paranoia and victimization implicit in this statement is revealing. Let's remove some of the obfuscation and be clear: this legislation does not intrude on the freedom of Catholics to act according to their consciences. No one is being forced to join a GSA. It enshrines in law the principle that the separate school board cannot impose its dogma on students when doing so violates their Charter rights to freedom of conscience, expression, and association. There is an old adage, "Your freedom to swing your fist stops at the bridge of my nose." Enshrining this in legislation is not persecution; it is the protection of everyone's rights. To implicitly compare the defending the rights of Catholic students to the Nazi persecution of trade unionists and Jews is despicable.

Shame on you, Cardinal Collins.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Religion gets it right, religion gets it wrong

Two months ago, American Atheists paid for several advertisements on billboards in New York City.

In largely Jewish districts, they had the word "Yahweh" in Hebrew with the words, "You know it's a myth... and you have a choice" in both English and Hebrew. Similarly, in Muslim neighborhoods, the billboard reads "Allah" in prominent Arabic text, with the same quotation in both English and Arabic.

The reaction from NYC's Jewish and Muslim communities delights me.

"I don’t think God is a myth, but that doesn’t exclude people to have a different opinion." Also, "The great thing about America is we are marketplace for ideas." I love it - no calls for censorship, no threats of violence, just a shrug and a bemused attitude suggesting, "Deny God's existence? You may as well claim gravity doesn't exist! Hah hah, those atheists sure are strange folk." It's so nice to read reasonable responses to provocative messages.

The people interviewed in the article have precisely the right attitude - religious individuals and organizations have the right to quote Torah, Bible, or Koran verses on advertisements they pay for,  and nonreligious folk have the same right to identify these beliefs as superstitious and offer another way to view the world.

If only all people and jurisdictions in were similarly enlightened. The County of Lackawanna Transit System in Pennsylvania rejected an advertisement that consisted of the single word, Atheists, along with the name of the sponsoring organization. In Canada, the poster, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." was initially rejected by public transit authorities in Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria, Halifax and London.

Most recently, passions have been stirred about distributing Bibles in Ontario's public classrooms. When the Bluewater District School Board voted to discontinue distributing Gideon Bibles to young students, the religious community exploded with rage. (This is a recurring issue in Ontario: in late 2010, the Waterloo Region District School Board voted to allow handing out Bibles on school property during school hours. The reaction from the secular and several religious communities was negative.)

The reaction to the Bluewater vote was astonishing. According to some, failing to distribute Bibles in public schools is a plot to "destroy Canadian heritage", and will turn Canada into a "warring nation". The rhetoric was raised to such an extent that trustees are frightened to drive to board meetings unaccompanied. Making threats - "watch your back" - isn't free speech, it's a form of coercion akin to terrorism: threatening or employing violence against civilians to achieve political aims. One wonders where the often paraded Christian values of charity, humility, and compassion go when their faith is no longer granted special and unique access to students in public schools.

It's not that religious texts have no place in our public school system. I assume (and certainly hope!) that the Bible, Torah, Qu'ran, Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, and many others are available in all school libraries. And students should be able to check out any sacred text as easily and anonymously as The God Delusion or the latest in the Magic Tree House series.

The Bible is worth reading for many reasons, but I question whether it's appropriate for pre-teens. There is more sex and violence in it than most Restricted movies.

It has long been my belief that if the bible were not The Bible, it would be banned by the Bible-thumpers.

But let's not ban it - as  Halton District Catholic school board banned Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Let's make both available - the Bible and the Golden Compass - in school libraries. When school officials distribute material on school time on school property, it provides implicit approval and support for its content. Students in school should not be subjected to any evangelical efforts. Let's keep our public schools places for education - and continue to allow students to decide what reading materials they want to sign out from the library. I hope that all religious communities will mature to become more like New York City's and less like Ontario's.