The recent debate between the Ontario government and concerned Catholic parents and educators (over the McGuinty government's anti-bullying bill, discussed in this space last week) highlights the need for a more robust understanding and public discourse about the interplay between freedom of conscience and religion, advancing public policy, and the role of government in a diverse society.
Bill 13 aims to promote positive, inclusive, and accepting school climates, and to prevent bullying. These are laudable goals. Children of all ages should be able to go school without fear of being bullied. And in our highly diverse society, learning with and from one another helps build understanding, compassion, and a sense of community.
Whatever the merits of Bill 13, it is lamentable that the reported public debate has been reduced to a putative clash between religion and "fundamental values" such as respect and tolerance, and to a dispute about the name of clubs designed to promote understanding between students of different sexual orientations. Freedom of conscience and religion is itself a fundamental value, one that legislators tend to ignore or curtail when there is an apparent clash with other fundamental values. A more robust understanding of the value of freedom of conscience and religion in a highly diverse society is long overdue.
Bill 13 represents a missed opportunity. It is a missed opportunity for the government, which chose to impose a particular vision of inclusion and acceptance. Rather than protect and promote inclusion of all children—whether fat or thin, jock or geek, popular or unpopular—the government effectively limited its protection against bullying to a subset of victims. And by specifically mentioning an even smaller subset—LGBTTIQ students—multiple times in the Bill, the government betrayed its own supposed neutrality. Premier McGuinty said the issue of protecting kids from bullying transcends all faiths and partisan politics. I agree. So why did the government choose to highlight some victims of bullying over others and legislatively mandate the names of certain student clubs? Imposing a particular vision of inclusion and acceptance despite institutional and parental concern risks undermining the legitimacy of the government's policy objective and breeding dissension rather than support.
Concerned parents and educators likewise missed the opportunity to unequivocally condemn bullying against all groups, and to reinforce the mission of the church. By focusing on the assault on religious freedom, on the clash between government and concerned parents and educators, and on the presumed clash between students and school officials, protesters ignored the painful reality of those children who are socially ostracized and worse yet, bullied. They missed the opportunity to advance the mission of the church, which, in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, is to be an instrument of peace, sowing love where there is hatred, pardon where there is injury, hope where there is despair and joy where there is sadness.