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St. Albert Catholic school board has spent more than $367,000 to defend firing of transgender teacher

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ST. ALBERT, Alberta

The St. Albert Catholic school board has spent at least $367,188 of taxpayer money to keep a transgender former teacher named Jan Buterman from ever working there again.

Whatever the Roman Catholic Church's doctrine is on the question of whether people should be able to transition from one gender to another -- and that's vague enough to argue this isn't a theological question, let alone a moral one -- it hardly seems like a good use of what are really public tax dollars.

Buterman was a woman before 2008, employed as a substitute teacher by Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools in a bedroom suburb just northwest of Edmonton. When he transitioned genders to become a man in 2008, he was removed from the board's substitutes' list and fired. Not long before, he had received a letter from the school board lauding his abilities as a teacher.

Buterman complained to the Alberta Human Rights Commission about his treatment in 2009.

Ever since, the board has been spending taxpayer money on lawyers to prevent him from teaching at its schools again -- $63,878 in 2009, $118,803.50 in 2010, $27,503 in 2011, $21,239 in 2011, $58,831.50 in 2012, and $98,172 in 2013.

So if you're a St. Albert Catholic school taxpayer, this is what a goodly amount of your tax dollars are being used for.

We know this much, by the way, thanks only to a Freedom of Information request filed by Duncan Kinney, executive director of the Progress Alberta advocacy group and author of commentary at ProgressAlberta.ca.

But while the nearly $370,000 Progress Alberta discovered the board has spent is a significant sum, it's far from the end of the matter, because the board continues its fight, as Kinney put it in his blog, "to ensure that a 100 percent publicly funded school board really can fire a teacher for being trans."

So there will be more bills for St. Albert Catholic school supporters to pay for the simple reason the legal battle is not over. Given the costs to date, it is easily possible the bill will rise above half a million dollars.

According to a 2014 report of the Canadian Press, the board's arguments were initially upheld by a Human Rights panel, then overturned by the chief of the commission. The board sought judicial review of that decision, but did not get the answer it wanted from Justice Sheila Greckol of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench.

"Five years have passed since the school board terminated Mr. Buterman. The voluminous and continual retreading of arguments at the commission, as well as this application for early judicial intervention on thin grounds, has served only to delay the hearing on the merits," Justice Greckol wrote in her judgment.

"Human rights process is not only for the lion-hearted and well-heeled conversant with litigation, but also for the timorous and impecunious -- for all Albertans," she wrote in her ruling. "The expeditious resolution of complaints becomes an issue of access to justice; justice delayed is justice denied."

That hasn't stopped the board's maneuvering in the case, however.

According to Kinney, "the legal strategy of the St. Albert Catholic school board and their lawyers seems to be to delay the process, bully the defendant, say as little as possible and continue to appeal." He noted in his blog that the board has requested highly personal documents from Buterman, including all medical records from his family physician, the entire clinical file from any psychologist, psychiatrist or psychotherapist he ever dealt with, and income tax returns from the completion of his education degree to the present.

What's the basis for that strategy? Well, we won’t find out from the board now, because superintendent David Keohane says the board won't comment since the appeal remains before the courts.

Aside from questions of legal strategy, the theological and moral foundations of this fight are murky. According to information included in Justice Greckol's ruling, reported by the Canadian Press in January 2014, a letter sent to Buterman by deputy superintendent Steve Bayus after he had conferred with the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton said that "the teaching of the Catholic Church is that persons cannot change their gender."

While Christian Scriptural doctrine on this topic is really pretty skimpy -- presumably because the matter didn't come up very often any time between the Iron Age and the Roman Empire, the approximate span of the Old and New Testaments -- this appears to be true. Leastways, if you believe everything you read on the Internet, there's a confidential Vatican document out there somewhere that argues a sex-change operation can't really change a person's sex, plus a passing reference in 2014 to the essential nature of the gender one is born with by Pope Benedict XVI.

Well, OK. So wouldn't the sensible way, the legal way, the morally defensible way, for a religious school board to deal with a transgender teacher be simply to say: "You think you're one thing, we think you're another, we'll just have to agree to disagree while you get back to the classroom and continue teaching"?

Seriously, any church is welcome to worry about the essential nature of man and woman if it wishes to, but there just ain't no Eleventh Commandment dealing with this topic!

That wouldn't satisfy everyone on either side, of course, but at least it would stanch the flow of tax dollars to wasteful litigation and redirect them back to education, not to mention bring the school board into compliance with the law of the land. Indeed, as someone said, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they marvelled at him.

Alas, that is not what passes for wisdom in the offices of Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools. 

"The letter went on to say that the school division was bound by the teachings of the church and that it intentionally hired teachers who were models of those teachings," the Canadian Press report explained. "Bayus wrote that Buterman's sex change was not aligned with the teachings of the church and would create confusion with students and parents."

The first sentence must have caused a ripple of laughter in Catholic school teachers' lounges. The second underestimates the ability of students and parents alike to cope with change.

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

Photo: KT King/flickr

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