By Kay Stockholder
Recently there have been two occasions on which the BCCLA has made representation on issues to do with homosexuality: Trinity Western University’s appeal of the B.C. College of Teachers’ decision to deny certification for their teacher training program, and the Surrey School Board’s decision to ban school books that depict the family life of same sex parents. We took what might appear to be opposite stands on the two issues, but in fact we argued both cases on the basis of the same civil libertarian principles.
Most recently, we have argued that the BCCT violated TWU’s freedom of association and religion in denying certification. After its own committee recommended approval of the academic content TWU’s program, the BCCT later denied certification on the grounds that TWU discriminated against homosexuals in requiring its students to promise, by signing a community standards contract, to abstain from a long list of biblically condemned practices, which include extramarital sexuality and “homosexual behavior”. There is no question that the contract is discriminatory in that it effectually excludes practicing homosexuals from TWU.
However, the B.C. Human Rights Code, which bans discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, also exempts religious, fraternal and other non-profit organizations, thus protecting freedom of association and freedom of religion. Therefore, though TWU discriminates against people who practice homosexuality, their right to do so is protected.
Of course, any private educational institution also has obligations to the secular society that guarantees its freedoms, and must therefore inculcate in its students respect for those who hold different moral views. TWU espouses such respect in its contract by emphasizing Jesus’ commandment to love one another. However, in these times when homosexual young people are particularly vulnerable to gay bashing of various kinds, it is particularly important that those who teach moral condemnation of homosexuality also condemn with equal fervor any actions that would infringe the rights and liberties, in society at large, of gay and lesbian persons.
We believe that the BCCT exceeded its mandate in denying certification to TWU on the grounds of their moral views. Though TWU, a private university, qualifies its students to teach in public schools, there is no evidence that these students have in any way tried to impose their moral views on their students or discriminated against gay and lesbian students. Indeed, if TWU graduates were denied the right to teach because of their moral beliefs, then so could any member of a religious denomination which taught such views, regardless of the school at which he or she had earned a degree.
In our secular and heterogeneous society we invoke criminal sanctions to prevent people from harming each other, but we honour the rights of consenting adults to conduct their private lives as they will. We prevent members of religious groups from imposing their private moral beliefs on students in public schools. In return, we also protect the rights of those who dissent from this secular morality to disseminate their beliefs freely, and to maintain private institutions in which to teach them to their children.
By way of contrast, the Surrey School Board can claim no such privilege in their decision to ban from the schools story books that represent families with same sex parents and their children. These books, distributed by Gay and Lesbian Educators of B.C., in a narrative form suitable for young children represent same sex parenting as a fact of life, just as heterosexual parents are represented. Though these books neither recommend nor discourage same sex parenting, they are designed to inculcate in children accepting attitudes towards those who depart from the heterosexual norm. The morality of inclusiveness that underlies these practices is the only morality that is appropriate for public schools in a liberal democracy.
The Surrey School Board defends its action on the grounds that such material promotes a homosexual lifestyle, thereby offending many of the parents in the district. This argument displays the Board’s woeful ignorance of their responsibility in a public school system. Children attending public schools in any area are entitled to the full range of knowledge available according to provincial standards, regardless of the ethnic or religious composition of particular communities. Parents who send their children to public schools do so in the knowledge that, though they can teach their children their private moral beliefs at home, they cannot expect those beliefs to be imposed on all children at school.
The school board also argues that their banning the books does not prevent teachers from discussing diverse kinds of families. However, teaching occurs by omission as well as commission. If all school books depict heterosexual families, and same sex families are mentioned only in passing, or when brought up by a child, then the children will in subtle ways be encouraged to think that there is something suspect, something vaguely unsavoury, about the alternate practices. In subtle ways, they will taught to look askance at any of their fellows whose parents are lesbians or gays. Once such attitudes are in place, even the most stringent harassment codes cannot prevent such children from being denigrated and ostracized.
The organization charged with safeguarding the standards of secular education, the BCCT, does not have the right to impose secular standards on private religious organizations; by the same token, school boards have no right to limit teaching resources on the basis either of their private moral views or of the religious affiliations of the children’s parents.