Manitobans divided over anti-bullying bill that sanctions gay-straight alliances in schools

A movement has grown in Steinbach, Man. to stop Bill 18, the province's new anti-bullying legislation.
A year after a bitter fight in Ontario, Manitobans now are engaged in the same hot debate over bullying in schools, especially when it comes to homosexual students.

The confrontation has set proponents of Bill 18, which amends Manitoba's Public Schools Act to include provisions against bullying and specifically sanctions gay-straight alliances in schools, against church groups who see it as an infringement on religious freedom.

The proposed legislation covers bullying on school grounds and in cyberspace, including after school hours, and entrenches the school's responsibility in dealing with it.

Under the bill, students are allowed to set up organizations and hold activities to promote things like gender equality, anti-racisim, awareness of those with disabilities and understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity.

They can use the term 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," the bill says.

[ Related: Toronto archbishop opposes gay-straight alliance bill ]

As anyone who followed the fight over similar legislation passed in Ontario knows, the Manitoba bill set off alarm bells among some religious groups. They see it as a potential threat to the values underpinning faith-based schools.

The town of Steinbach has become a focal point of the debate, in part because of Grade 11 student Evan Wiens, the only openly gay student at Steinbach Regional Secondary School.

Wiens, 16, has spoken out against local opponents of the bill despite taunts from fellow students and powerful voices on the other side, including local Conservative MP Vic Toews, minister for public safety.

In a letter to constituents, Toews called the bill “unconstitutional infringement upon the freedom of religion.”

Wiens said he was fighting for those who did not feel strong enough to speak for themselves.

“They should not have to feel ashamed, and they should not have to feel like they have to hide themselves,” he told the Globe and Mail. “But then I thought about it, and I thought if a church is allowed to vocally oppose a bill, what’s so bad about me standing up for my rights?”

Pastor Ray Duerksen of Steinbach's Southland Church, a non-denominational, prayer-based ministry, seemed to be in full sky-is-falling mode when he said in a sermon last month that Bill 18 is “the biggest challenge the Canadian church has ever faced.

“It’s going to be the beginning of an incremental attempt to destroy the Christian church. That’s what’s taking place. That’s the agenda behind the scene," he told his congregation, adding he opposes bullying but that the bill favours gay children over religious ones, the Globe said.

CBC News reported last month that about a thousand staff, students and parents held an information and prayer event at Steinbach Christian High School.

“Independent schools should have the right to direct and ensure any organizations meeting in their school will not be contradictory to their faith principles,” school principal Scott Wiebe told told the meeting.

[ Related: Manitoba Christian school opposes anti-bullying law ]

The law would apply to schools like Steinbach Christian, which get half their funding from the government.

In an editorial, the Brandon Sun noted the proposed law's opponents are threatening to challenge it in court if it's passed.

"In Ontario, the Catholic Church threatened a constitutional challenge when the Liberal government introduced similar legislation last year," the Sun said.

"To date, however, no formal legal challenge has been launched. Moreover, the church was embarrassed when groups within its ranks, such as the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, came out in support of the law.

"The Ontario experience reveals a truism of debates about religion: Congregations are generally more progressive than their leadership. Politically astute religious leaders would prefer that not be emphasized in any great detail."

The Hamilton Spectator reported in January that seven months after Ontario passed its anti-bullying law, none of the city's Roman Catholic Schools had a gay-straight alliance yet.

Back in Steinbach, the local school district made a policy decision last year to allow students to set up gay-straight alliances, saying it's "committed to accommodating all students in a positive school environment that is inclusive and accepting of all pupils."

[ More Brew: British Columbia common-law couples basically married under new law ]

But Wiens told the Globe that in practice, he's not allowed to put up posters to promote an alliance while church groups can advertise their activities in the school.

“They already have all the freedoms," he said. "I’m just trying to put up a poster."