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High marks to Eggen for ordering recalcitrant religious schools to obey the law and allow gay-straight alliances

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Alberta Education Minister David Eggen (David Climenhaga photo)

Sometimes a government just needs to do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may. Alberta Education Minister David Eggen took a first step in the right direction yesterday by issuing a ministerial order requiring two recalcitrant private religious schools to obey the law and let students form gay-straight alliances if they wish.

This is a clear victory for LGBTQ students and their legal right to form GSAs.

Unfortunately for Alberta's NDP government, there is political risk attached to whatever course it now chooses to deal with the problem created by the operators of the Meadows Baptist Academy and the Harvest Baptist Academy. Plus, there is more Eggen still needs to do.

The two right-wing opposition parties are certain to ruthlessly exploit this situation as a wedge against the NDP -- especially with a radical social conservative like Jason Kenney now at the head of the Progressive Conservative Party. Even though the original legislation was passed two years ago in March 2015 by premier Jim Prentice's PC government, Kenney is likely to use sly dog whistles to rile up bigots among his base to attack the NDP for enforcing this well-intentioned but inadequate Tory law.

Citizens trying to understand this situation need to remember that while the two Edmonton Schools run by the Independent Baptist Christian Education Society do teach a version of Christian doctrine that condemns of gay lifestyles, society leaders also appear to be politically motivated.

Society chair Rev. Brian Coldwell admitted last year in an interview with a social conservative publication he had worked behind the scenes with representatives of both opposition parties. He is also member of the board of Parents for Choice in Education, a supposedly non-partisan group that advocates home schooling and private schools and enjoys loud support from the Opposition parties.

So it is hard to believe there is no political side to Coldwell's insistence the schools will never comply with the law's requirement students be allowed to form GSAs.

Determined to proceed cautiously, even at the risk of leaving LGBTQ students vulnerable, Eggen appointed Edmonton lawyer Dan Scott in September last year to inquire into the activities of the two schools. Scott handed his report to the government in November 2016 and nothing much happened until yesterday, when the report was released to the public and Eggen ordered the schools to comply with the law.

Scott had recommended the minister set a deadline requiring the schools to submit updated policies allowing gay-straight alliances, or to appoint a trustee to oversee development of such policies if the society refused.

If the schools still won’t co-operate, "the minister should consider revoking the accreditation and registration of one or both of the schools at the end of the 2016-2017 school year," Scott wrote in his report.

This would be a big deal, as the schools have received close to $4.5 million in provincial funding over the past six years, according to data found through a freedom of information search by Progress Alberta. According to the society’s 2014 annual report, public funding amounts to close to 90 per cent of the schools’ revenue.

Scott recommended not shutting down the schools immediately to avoid disrupting students programs in mid term.

Media reported Coldwell ignored their calls yesterday, which combined with Eggen's release of the report suggests the schools have refused to co-operate and the government now has little choice but to move toward pulling their accreditation.

Scott's report also noted that a significant gap exists in the 2015 GSA law because private schools are exempt from its requirement they offer a "welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment” for LGBTQ students. It urged the government to shut it through legislation.

So that's one more thing that Eggen needs to do promptly, despite political risks real and imagined.

There's more, however, not contained in Scott's report, which dealt only with the two schools run by Coldwell's group.

There is the determination by some schools and boards to report students who request a GSA to their parents -- which in some families could be a life-threatening act, as school administrators well know. The intention of the policy, which may be illegal under Alberta privacy legislation, is obviously to discourage GSAs.

That needs to be dealt with through clear legislation too.

Then there is the troubling matter of the sly strategy adopted by some Roman Catholic separate school boards to submit GSA policies that don't state explicitly students have the right to form a GSA, or qualify that legal reality by claiming the school principal must approve such groups.

If the NDP was rattled by the thought of fighting an outlier fundamentalist group with far-out theo-conservative views, you can imagine their concern about taking on Catholic school boards.

But they need to find a way. "He should just put a new section in the School Act making it clear how schools are expected to support LGBTQ students, staff, and families," Kristopher Wells of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services told me yesterday. "Let's end the games once and for all."

Wells is right, of course. The government needs to remember that sometimes in history, the right thing is more than just the only thing decent people can do, it’s the right thing politically too.

Wedge issues, after all, can split two ways.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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