- Front Page
July 8, 2010
By Dan Shapiro
Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership
CALGARY, AB, July 8, 2010/ – Although the widely criticized “parental opt-out” provision in Alberta’s Human Rights Act does not come into effect until September 1, it is already tying the education system in knots.
Unfortunately, however, the new law’s negative consequences go beyond education and human rights: it is such profoundly bad lawmaking that it undermines public confidence in our governance and legal systems.
Bill 44 re-visited
Back in June 2009, Bill 44 amended Alberta’s Human Rights Act to include a controversial “parental opt-out.” The provision gives parents and guardians the right to remove children from school instruction dealing with “religion, human sexuality or sexual orientation . . . without academic penalty.” Furthermore, school boards must give advance notice that such lessons will take place. If they fail to do so, parents may file a complaint with the human rights commission against the offending teacher and school board.
Bill 44 finally added “sexual orientation” to the act’s prohibited grounds of discrimination; 11 years earlier the Supreme Court ruled the legislation had to be applied as if the words were written in. It is believed that the “trade-off” for finally updating the human rights act to match legal reality was the enactment of the bizarre parental opt-out.
Whatever the ideological motivation, one thing is crystal clear: the new provision will create a “chill” in Alberta classrooms. Although the opt-out excludes “incidental or indirect” references to the three scary subjects, how many teachers are going to encourage discussion of, say, aboriginal spirituality – accepted by law as religious belief – when the result may be an alleged human rights violation?
Revised “Guide to Education”
The provision has created the need for an updated provincial Guide to Education, Alberta Education’s key policy document, to steer implementation of the opt-out. In classic Humpty Dumpty style (“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”), the Guide states: “there must be no question that the subject matter is intended to be about religion, human sexuality or sexual orientation . . . . Although there may be religious interpretations of the origin of life, the inclusion of evolution is not intended to be explicitly about religion.”
Tell this to someone who believes evolutionary theory contradicts their religion. Canadian courts have consistently ruled that the test of someone’s “religion” is “sincere belief,” not what some government document says counts as “religion.” If they haven’t received advance notice about such lessons, aggrieved parents can go straight to the human rights commission to file a complaint, no matter what the Guide says.
Similar absurdity abounds in the Guide’s attempt to stickhandle around what counts as “human sexuality.” “In order to be considered explicitly about ‘human sexuality,’” a course “must also address human sexual behaviours.” Therefore, science programs “that deal only with the anatomy and physiology of human reproduction are not explicitly about human sexuality.”
How the physiology of human reproduction can be deemed to not be about “human sexuality” defies credulity.
Humpty Dumpty also said, “When I make a word do a lot of work like that, I always pay it extra.” Adding Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass to the curriculum might help us decipher the logical distortions the opt-out created.
Bringing the law into disrepute
The section in the Guide to Education dealing with the parental opt-out reveals Alberta Education officials tying themselves in knots to ward off human rights complaints.
Think about this: one arm of government (Alberta Education) is doing its best to ensure citizens will not use a legal remedy enforceable by another arm of government (Alberta Human Rights Commission)! Does this instill confidence in government?
Moreover, the opt-out clearly contradicts the Guide’s “controversial issues” policy dealing with “topics that are publicly sensitive and upon which there is no consensus of values or beliefs.” Such topics obviously include religion, human sexuality and sexual orientation about which, the Guide correctly states, “reasonable people may sincerely disagree.” “Opportunities to deal with these issues are an integral part of student learning in Alberta,” continues the Guide, except . . . , well, now they aren’t.
Is this any way to make law? Is this responsible governance? The logical contortions created by the parental opt-out undermine our confidence in law as an instrument serving the public interest.
A mistake from the outset
We can’t blame education officials for trying to prevent human rights complaints against teachers who address “controversial issues” as part of a well-rounded curriculum.
We might, however, ask why our legislators didn’t pay more thought to the wording – indeed, the very idea – of the parental opt-out. When the first teacher faces a human rights complaint, the Bill 44 farce won’t seem so funny.
Dan Shapiro is a research associate with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, Calgary.
Channels: The Calgary Sun, July 18, 2010
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