Ontario’s public schools are taking heat from some Christian groups for their new equity and inclusive education strategy. The policy, which applies to districts that receive public funding, requires that schools work to fight racism, homophobia, religious intolerance and sexism to encouraging achievement among all students. Upset over the anti-homophobia guidelines set by Toronto Catholic schools, Coptic Orthodox leader Fr. Jeremiah Attaalla is threatening to pull all Coptic children out of the system.
In keeping in following with Ontario’s inclusive education strategy, the Toronto Catholic school board will vote on an Equity and Inclusive Education (EIE) policy this month. By giving the catechism some wiggle room, schools can continue to receive public funding. The EIE will stick to Catholic social teaching, but will put an emphasis on diversity and respecting all people. It reads, “The Board recognizes that any form of social or cultural discrimination is incompatible with Catholic moral principles and is in violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code.” With Catholic students throughout the province clamoring for GSAs, now is time time for the board to move beyond some traditions in order to keep Catholicism relevant.
Though the EIE hasen’t yet been passed, teachers have already started creating curriculum that meets the guidelines. Cathy Sousa, a grade nine teacher at Resurrection Catholic Secondary School, gave her students a test that not only acknowledged that gay people exist, but showed a remarkable display of acceptance. After asking her students to define terms like “homophobia” and “coming out,” she had them mark common beliefs about LGB people true or false (and marked students wrong for marking stereotypical statements true!) and then write a paragraph describing the Catholic Church’s teaching about homosexuality. I don’t know about you, but that sounds at least as fun and comprehensive as labeling pictures of STIs in sex ed.
Despite Sousa and Toronto Catholic schools’ good intentions, parents, priests and politicans are angrier than two angry things. In an all-caps letter, Fr. Attaalla said he will not hesitate to remove all students from Coptic families from Catholic schools. The Church believes that this will affect at least 4,000 families and could mean a loss of $40 million for Toronto Catholic schools. The Canadian Egyptian Congress is urging families not to withdraw, instead encouraging them to stay and fight the EIE from within.
While Nazeer Bishay, the president of the Congress, worries that students whose families pull them out of Catholic schools will have no place to go, Fr. Attaalla believes that members of the Coptic community could start their own school;“Having our own school may be our only option, especially for people who can’t afford private school. But we are a rich church, so we’ll fund a new school if we have to.”
Creating safe spaces to is something queers know all too well. The difference here is that, while LGBT people and allies work to create places where everyone can feel safe, Fr. Attaalla wants to shelter his own intolerance and enable discrimination. The idea that someone can escape discomfort with wealth, though appalling, isn’t too foreign either. Whether it’s as egregious as a white-only or men-only country club or as sneaky and common as an upper-class neighborhood, people buy validation all the time.
LGBT community members aren’t the only ones being targeted by opponents of the EIE. Bishay along with some members of the Coptic community are worried that the EIE will introduce Friday prayer services for Muslim students similar to the ones recently permitted at a public school. He emphasizes that he is not anti-Muslim; “We must not be misunderstood: We are not against Islam in any way. The disruption of the school day is the main thing.” His argument seems almost plausible and the support of the Jewish Defense League, the Canadian Hindu Advocacy group and some Muslim parents lend credibility to the idea that this is strictly an issue of appropriate usage of class time. What continues to bother me is that Catholic schools are the only religious schools to receive public funding in Ontario. If there’s public support and public money for Catholic organizations, why should there not be similar concessions for other religions?
“As Christ said,” Fr. Attaalla noted, “everyone is welcome to sit at my father’s table as long as they don’t say anything that’ll upset Aunt Mary and pass the gravy when Jesus asks for it.” Actually he didn’t say that last part, but I feel it pretty accurately captures the spirit of how he believes Gods thinks. As for Toronto Catholic schools, let’s hope they continue to push for inclusion and that their model sets an example for other systems.