I recently read a wonderful Editorial in the May 16, 2016 edition of the Western Catholic Reporter. Here is my response to Mr. Argan’s editorial which I sent him today:
Dear Mr. Argan,
I wanted to write to you to express my deep gratitude for your editorial in the WCR May 16, 2016 “Pope Francis: Open hearts will lead the brokenhearted to fullness of life”. I commend you for capturing so well the spirit of Pope Francis’ comments on mercy in his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). In paraphrasing Pope Francis you say:
“The Church ought to be like a mother who trusts in people’s efforts to live by their consciences and do good, rather than a stern taskmaster who has rules for every conceivable situation.
People are more likely to be led to sanctity and, ultimately, to heaven by a mother who seeks to understand the painful situations of their lives.
Wasn’t that Jesus’ way? It was Jesus who ate with Zacchaeus before the tax collector expressed any hint of sorrow for exploiting people. Look at the result. Only after he felt Jesus’ warmth and acceptance was Zacchaeus liberated enough to pledge half his possessions to the poor and to pay back those he had defrauded four times the amount he had taken.
Jesus also told the woman caught in the very act of adultery that he would not condemn her. Yes, he told her to sin no more, but his primary message was not one of law, but of mercy.”
These are the very things we need to be saying to our Catholic LGBTQ students: we need to offer them mercy not the law, a mother not a taskmaster, in order to welcome them into a relationship with Jesus who has mercy on them. I would like to share with you why I believe this.
I attended a presentation by the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies at the U of A about Camp Fyrefly, a summer camp for LGBTQ youth. The researcher – presenter said that the majority of camp participants even if raised in religious homes, identified themselves as atheists. I was very saddened to hear this but was not at all surprised. Many of these young people may have heard their pastor “apply moral laws…as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives”. They must have encountered many religious people with the closed hearts of “one used to hiding behind Church teaching”. I believe that we as religious people have done a great disservice to these young people by being so hostile toward them that they have distanced themselves from their faith — a faith that could have brought them much peace in their daily lives. As you write in your editorial, we need to keep open the pathways of grace: “Jesus’ way was not the way of judgment and exclusion. The ones he judged harshly were those who piled up laws and duties on the weakened backs of the sorrowful.”
You express so well in your editorial that the Church must help form consciences with God given moral law, “but refrain from judging people for how they live out that law in [the] mixed up circumstances of daily life”. Can we as Christians and Catholics refrain from judging LGBTQ members of our society who are following their well formed consciences?
Would that the mercy expressed by the Pope toward divorced Catholics be extended to LGBTQ members of our Catholic community whose experience of our judgement and exclusion leads to high levels of suicide. We can mediate God’s mercy for them by accepting them as they are today — just as Jesus accepted Zacchaeus: unconditionally. Bathed in God’s mercy, all of us, including the LGBTQ members of our society, are much more inclined to journey toward Jesus than bathed in the crippling judgments of others.
ECSD trustees unanimously passed a motion at their April 26,2016 public board meeting aimed at getting the Alberta Foundation for the Arts to put back the money it recently moved from programs for schools to other arts areas. The ECSD Board has now joined the Calgary Board of Education, Foothills School Division and 4 First Nation’s School Boards calling for the AFA to reinstate the Arts and Education fund to 2009 levels. Faced with a 5% cut to their funding from the Prentice Government in 2015, the AFA decided to cut its support to arts activities in schools in half. Concerned that the AFA funding was transferring funding away from a program which gives tens of thousands of kids per year across Alberta a chance to learn from professional artists, I investigated. Speaking with the Arts Ed community – an organization of individual and collective artists, trustees, and parents– I learned that since 2015, $500,000 was cut from the Artists in Residency school programs– a big drop from the $1.43 million the program received in 2008-2009. I also learned that though around 200 schools will be applying for the Artists in Residency program for the 2016-2017 school year, only around 70 will be accepted at the current funding levels. The Arts Ed community has been attempting to get a meeting with the Ministers of Culture and Education to no avail so I brought the issue up at our public board meeting this week. The Board is requesting that the Ministers arrange a meeting between the Arts Ed community, artists, parents and trustees to discuss reversing the AFA cuts.
An apparent reason why the AFA cut half of their funding for arts activity in Alberta schools was to make the application uptake rate fairer between different project grants. Prior to the cuts, the Artists in Residency program Organizational Project Grant was able to accommodate 60-70% of applications from schools. The Individual Artists Project Grant programs, funded in the same envelope, could only accommodate about 30% or fewer of applications. By cutting AFA-funded arts activity in schools in half, the AFA made the success rate for both programs appear fairer, putting both programs slightly above a 30% success rate.
The Artists in Residency program reaches many hundreds and thousands of people – students, teachers, and parents. You may know these programs as the Shakespearean plays brought to your child’s school by Theatre Prospero, or French culture programs by Les Bucherons, or theater productions incorporating a school’s particular interest/focus with the help of Trickster Theater. The Artists in Residency program is the main source of funding for the largest presenting network in the province: the schools. Reinstating the Artists in Residency funding to 2008-2009 funding levels ($1.43 million) would ensure that provincial tax dollars will get the most impact per dollar in providing artistic opportunities for Albertans both young and old, rural and urban, including aboriginal schools and communities. As Catholics who believe in sharing with the less fortunate, the Board believes that these cuts should be reversed. Time is of the essence as the AFA will be reviewing applications in May.
We need a meeting with the Ministers of Culture and Education to discuss the impact of these cuts and hopefully to have the cuts reversed. Phoning the ministers to express your concerns around the cuts would be a great help but an email as well would be appreciated. Here is the contact information for the two ministers:
Ricardo Miranda, Minister of Culture and Tourism:
Legislature Office: 780.422.3559, Fax: 780.427.0188
Constituency Office: 403.280.4022, Fax:403.280.3877
David Eggen, Minister of Education:
Legislature Office: 780.427.5010,Fax: 780.427.5018
Constituency Office: 780.451.2345, Fax:780.451.2344
I have been pondering over the last few months how I would respond to recent comments made on my blog to the stand I have taken in regards to pastoral care for LGBTQ students in our Catholic schools. I came across an article last week published in the National Catholic Reporter which expresses well my position on this issue. Sometimes we can get our ideas across best through story telling. Thank you to all who have written to me through my blog comments. Even though we have taken very different positions on this issue, I appreciate that you took the time to write and express your views. Neither you nor I are lukewarm on this subject and I think Jesus would appreciate that! So here’s the story:Mercy Trumps Law During Holy Year of Mercy. Disclaimer: I am not suggesting through this article that LGBTQ members of our society are sinners. Some people in the church however — including some members of the hierarchy– do.
First Round Comments
I would have liked to support the amendments to GP #14 because they greatly improve the current version of this policy. This latter version of GP #14 adds a very important quote from the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) which states that the Church believes any form of discrimination is contrary to God’s intent. It is a very strong statement by the church and very symbolic that it came from a Council which sought dialogue with the world and with modern society.
This version of GP #14 also removes the phrase “unjust discrimination” from the document and simply states that our school district will overcome and eradicate “every type of discrimination” and maintain “an environment free from discrimination of any type”. So this too is very positive.
So for these reasons I would have liked to approve GP #14 but I can’t because the purpose of this policy is to send it to the government in response to the Minister’s request on Nov. 5, 2015 for policy and regulations that in his words “respect diversity and fosters a sense of belonging”. He also requested that our Board specifically address our responsibilities as it relates to the LGBTQ community. This generic policy in my mind, does not do this.
I think that we also need to remember why we are here today: last year around this time, a parent of a grade 2 transgender girl lodged a human rights complaint against ECSD because this mother believed that we discriminated against her daughter when our staff denied her access to the girls’ washroom. At that time, because the Board did not have a policy on inclusion and diversity our staff referenced Administrative Policy and Regulations 138: Commitment to Inclusive Communities in Edmonton Catholic Schools. This Administrative Policy and Regulation is dated January 5, 2015 and predates the Human Rights complaint. It is as generic as GP #14. It didn’t work because it didn’t give clear direction to the staff on how to proceed in cases involving our LGBTQ students, staff and families. We need to remember the adage: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. I worry that the general nature of GP #14 will lead to general GP #14 regulations that will be unhelpful to our staff and administration who need clear direction on how to proceed with specific concerns brought forward by our LGBTQ students. Let us not forget that even the Catholic Independent Schools of Vancouver which are overseen by Archbishop Miller, have stand-alone policy and regulations for transgender students and gender expression. If they can do it, so can we.
Trustee Bergstra kindly sent all ECSD trustees on March 9, 2016 a number of studies that revealed that stand alone SOGI policies are more effective than generic inclusive ones. One of the studies she cited was called Every Class in Every School: Final Report on the First National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia in Canadian Schools. This study which was funded by the University of Winnipeg Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canadian Institute of Health Research and the Research Foundation for Society and Culture of Quebec and included 3,700 students from across Canada states that “Generic safe school policies that do not include specific measures on homophobia are not effective in improving the school climate for LGBTQ students. LGBTQ students from schools with anti-homophobia policies reported significantly fewer incidents of physical and verbal harassment due to their sexual orientation” (p.9) Our administration–not the Board because we have not yet to developed one– has a stand-alone Ethno Cultural Relations Administrative Policy and Regulations that gives very clear direction to staff on how to address racial discrimination. Why is that we cannot have a stand- alone policy on how our district addresses homophobia and transphobia?
Second Round Comments
As I mentioned before, I would have liked to support GP #14 with the amendments because it is a great improvement over the current version. One of the additions however, which I think will only muddy the waters further for our staff, is the inclusion of the phrase “The Alberta Act, 1905 pursuant to Catholic Denominational Rights”. We are suggesting to our staff that they operate under the laws of our country and our province in regards to human rights but then they also must be aware of our denominational rights as Catholics. We all know that our local church hierarchy does not approve of accommodating sexual and gender minority students because any action in this regard plays into relativism and legitimizes consensual sexual expression (Bishop Henry Pastoral Letter January 13, 2016). So how are our staff to balance all these competing interests—one to protect human rights and one to protect Catholic religious rights? If there is ever a district that needs a clear policy on sexual and gender minority students, its Catholic districts. I believe we need to pick a side in this debate and stick to it. What we are currently doing with GP #14 is downloading our own ambiguity on this matter to teachers and administration who are on the front lines. I believe that GP #14 is trying to be all things to all people and as a result will serve no one.
EPSB has had a very clear stand-alone SOGI policy since 2011 that reflects closely the Guidelines for Best Practices as provided by the Minister recently. I asked Chair Michael Janz if he could share with me any problems with assaults in the bathrooms and change rooms, if there were any parents feeling they lacked consent, or if there were any cisgender students who felt threatened by transgender students sharing their washrooms, change rooms, sports teams, or overnight field trip accommodations.
He wrote back that their stand-alone policy and regulations “have helped facilitate safe, caring, and healthy learning environments for all staff, students, and families. We have received much praise for the policy, which has clarified our expectations and set the ‘tone at the top’ in our District.” And to be fair, I have never heard in the media, any mention in the last 5 years, that EPSB has had any human rights complaints or any other form of complaint from parents or from students despite the fact that their policy follows the current Guidelines suggested by the Minister of Education. In fairness not only to our students but to our staff and administration, we need a stand-alone policy that will give clear direction on how we are to proceed as a district in accommodating our sexual and gender minority students. We have tried a generic inclusive communities’ policy already and it didn’t work. We need to learn from our mistakes so that we can reduce the chance of more human rights complaints and most importantly, so that we can fully support in a specific way our very vulnerable sexual and gender minority students. For these reasons I cannot support GP #14 with the amendments.
I wish to apologize to all those who were offended by the inclusion of Bishop Henry’s letter in a communique sent to all ECSD parents on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. I need the public to know that I tried to discourage my fellow trustees from including his letter in a communication we were planning on sending out to our parents on Friday. As you can see, I was unsuccessful in convincing them that it would not bode well for our district and the future of Catholic education if we allowed ourselves to participate in disseminating his uninformed views and comments which frankly, in my opinion, are not in keeping with the spirit of the Year of Mercy recently declared by Pope Francis.
Many of my constituents have expressed their dismay/anger/horror/frustration/ that ECSD sent his letter which states so many hurtful and untrue things about the LGBTQ community — including that GSAs and QSAs are “highly politicized ideological clubs which seek to cure society of ‘homophobia’ and ‘heterosexism’, and which accept the idea that all forms of consensual sexual expression are legitimate.” This is not at all what GSAs and QSAs are — they are simply safe spaces for LGBTQ students and their allies to meet and receive support. Studies have shown that schools which have GSAs lower suicide rates for LGBTQ students and even help reduce the bullying experienced by those perceived as LGBTQ. As I have mentioned in previous blog posts: GSAs are clubs which offer pastoral support to a very vulnerable group of students. We need these groups in our schools as a means of saving lives.
There were many other things said in Bishop Henry’s letter which I disagree with and as an educated Catholic, I want my constituents to know that I unequivocally disagreed that it should be sent to our parents.
Here is a comment from a Catholic teacher and parent that was recently posted in response to my blog post on Glen Argan’s editorial in the most recent Western Catholic Reporter. I am making my response to his comments in a blog post because it may be of interest to other readers:
Comment from Michael Bombak:
Mrs. Grell, your response to Glen Argan has allowed me the opportunity to reflect on this topic as a Catholic teacher, and parent.
I see here a false dichotomy between taking care of children and receiving council from the Archbishop. Pitting the Archbishop- and the Church- against the welfare of students is simply an unclear picture of events and quite a destructive vision at that.
Pope Francis is an excellent witness to call upon. We must accompany all students (staff and parents for that matter) in whatever situation they find themselves in, and this is the calling of the Church. Pope Francis has also said the following about the new gender theory:
“For instance, I wonder, for example, if the so-called gender theory is not also an expression of a frustration and of a resignation, which aims to cancel the sexual difference because it no longer knows how to address it. Yes, we risk taking a step backward. The removal of the difference, in fact, is the problem, not the solution. To resolve their problems of relation, man and woman must instead talk more to one another, listen more to one another, know one another more, love one another more.
-General Audience, April 15, 2015
We must as the Church meet everyone where they are at. We must patiently walk with them side by side. But we must never forget that we are leading them somewhere. Pope Francis is careful that they don’t slip along the way. We should be too.
You are certainly right about the difficulty of being “the servant of two masters,” and it is not a unique experience it you. It is a difficulty shared by all Catholic School teachers in this province. These teachers are anxious for guidance and support. Let’s work at providing them a good witness by serving the right Master- God; in His Holy Church.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts — especially from the perspective of a Catholic teacher and parent. Let’s go back to how this whole issue began. A mother and father visit a professional, accredited psychiatrist and he diagnoses their daughter with gender dysphoria. The psychiatrist suggests that for the sake of their daughter’s mental health, they allow her to live out her gender identity as a girl in every respect. The parents bring a letter from the psychiatrist to the school with the psychiatrist’s diagnosis and recommendations. The school district denies their daughter access to the bathroom with which she identifies. Their daughter is told to walk down the hallway –accompanied by a couple of her classmates because it is so far away — to a “gender neutral” bathroom because it could be upsetting to the other girls if they see her in their washroom. The first question here is: why would a Catholic school district dispute the diagnosis and recommendations of an accredited psychiatrist? When a child is diagnosed with a peanut allergy and needs an epipen we don’t question the doctor’s diagnosis but immediately accommodate this child by ensuring there is an epipen available at the ready everywhere that child goes.
The next question is: who initially decided that this transgender girl could not use the girls’ bathroom? I didn’t and neither did 5 other trustees who govern our district. Prior to May 5, 2015, this decision was made by the chair of our board, the superintendent and the archbishop in private meetings. When I asked that the trustees have a meeting on this case on May 5, 2015—after the parents had filed a Human Rights Complaint reported in the media–we were given incorrect, inaccurate and misleading information. We were also informed that the archbishop did not want us to change our stance on the bathroom issue. Based upon this inaccurate information and wanting to be in communion with the archbishop, the majority of trustees voted to allow the case to be decided by the Human Rights Commission. I need to make note here that Trustee Marilyn Bergstra, due to illness, was not present at this May 5 meeting when this decision was made. I know from her support of this child, that she certainly would have voted as I voted: to allow this child to use the bathroom with which she identifies.
You also need to know that our Board established an ad hoc committee to develop a policy for our transgender students and the archbishop chose not to meet with the committee, nor join in a conversation we were having with the psychiatrist. Instead, he wrote a letter to trustees telling us to stop writing our policy and follow the policy he was developing with Catholic superintendents. I respect that the archbishop is the ecclesial authority that determines the Catholicity of our district but does he respect our roles as tax payer funded, elected officials who are legislated through the School Act to govern our school district? In not being willing to meet with us, to collaborate, to share ideas, I feel that it is unfair to say that I am out of communion with the archbishop. I have not chosen to do this—he has made it impossible by his lack of communication and his lack of respect for my role as legislated in the School Act.
Another question I have been asked of late is: why are we spending so much time and so many resources on an issue that only affects a very small number of our students? It seems to a lot of people, that there are more important issues to worry about! Parents of autistic children and other special needs children are beginning to complain. I couldn’t agree more! Who decided to make this bathroom issue the hill to die on to protect church doctrine and our Catholic identity? Not me–I wasn’t invited to any of the meetings. And so now, we are spending an enormous amount of time, money and energy developing a gender identity policy to protect these students because our Inclusive Communities Policy wasn’t specific enough.
Now let’s turn to what I have talked about all along in this whole matter: what is our pastoral response? In a recent Western Catholic Reporter issue (Sept. 14, 2015 Church Must Respect Persons and Tradition, Pope Says) the Pope is reported as saying that “theology should be for ‘the people we have before us. Without encountering families and the people of God, theology runs the great risk of becoming an ideology’”. The article goes on to report that “The Pope said that any attempt to limit or cut off the relationship between ‘received tradition and concrete reality puts the faith of the people of God in danger’. Theology and reflection should not be at odds with pastoral ministry and the lives of real people, he said”. I have always maintained from the beginning of this controversy that no one is suggesting that church doctrine must change—not even the parents of this child are suggesting this. What I am suggesting is a pastoral response to people in their situation. You have spoken of this and you have suggested that “we must never forget that we are leading them somewhere”. By welcoming our transgender students as they are, I would hope we are leading them to a safe, supportive place where they can thrive. A recent study Being Safe, Being Me by Elizabeth Saewyc (Edmonton Journal, May 7, 2015 Many Trans Youth Harm Themselves, Study Finds) suggests that “Young people who have supportive adults in their lives, whether it’s their parents or members of their communities, were four times less likely to harm themselves…And the minority of transgender youth who said they felt connected at school were much more likely to report good mental health”. I hope that in accepting these students as they are and supporting them in their school environments they will be less likely to self harm. According to Saewyk’s study, the stakes are high: Trans youth, just like other LGBTQ youth, are seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their non LGBTQ peers. Taking a pastoral stance in regards to our transgender students is very important for their safety—it will save lives. This is enough to convince me that we need to take a pastoral approach rather than an ideological one.
Finally, when we don’t welcome and accept our transgender students as they are, what affect does that have on their families? How will their parents react? How will their brothers and sisters react? If we tell them that our church does not accept gender theory and therefore they must be segregated in various ways while at school, what message does the family take away from this? In my conversations with not only the Catholic parents of the transgender child who lodged the Human Rights Complaint but many other Catholics, there is a great sense of disappointment and even scandal that our faith which is based upon the teachings of Jesus Christ who reached out to the most marginalized of his day, is choosing to stand by church doctrine over saving the lives of our most vulnerable children. Some see this “digging in of our heels” in order to ensure our “Catholic identity” as a reason to stop going to church, to renounce their faith, to be disillusioned with Catholic schools and even call for their dissolution. When we are seen to be following in the footsteps of the Pharisees rather than those of our Lord, we create great scandal. I fully agree with you that we must “work at providing [teachers] a good witness by serving the right Master – God; in His Holy Church”. This is exactly what I am trying to do by finding a safe place for our transgender students in our schools. What I am up against though, are clergy who are choosing to follow the letter of the law over the Spirit of it. It is not a new problem as we know. In reading the Gospels we learn that Jesus faced the same struggles with the religious leaders of his day.
Thank you again for taking the time to write and giving me this opportunity to respond. I believe that it is only in having these conversations that we can better understand one another and resolve how together, we can best serve the common good of all our students. Thank you for all that you do in teaching our students both through our curriculum and your example, that all our students are cherished by God, made in the image of God and have their dignity as human beings in the fact that they are made by God. This certainly is the core message of Jesus Christ, not where a transgender child chooses to go to the bathroom.
Yesterday I sent an email to my supporters (56 to be exact who sent me supportive emails in May). I wanted to thank them for their support and update them on what was happening in regards to the development of an ECSD transgender policy. I told them that a very good policy based upon Edmonton Public School Board’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Policy would come forward at the October 13th public board meeting and encouraged them to please register to speak to this policy. So I sent out a copy of the policy as well as the policy I attempted to bring forward to the Sept. 15th public board meeting. I wanted my supporters to see that our Board has been working very hard on developing a policy that would protect our transgender students.
I also sent out a copy of the policy that was put together by the Council of Catholic Superintendents of Alberta. The trustees were sent a letter by the Archbishop telling us that we were to “wait for and follow” the “protocol” being prepared by the superintendents. I fully assumed that if the Archbishop wanted us to follow this protocol/policy (whatever you want to call it) then it was a public document since there is no way for our Board to adopt a policy on transgender students without it going to a public board meeting for three readings. As well, when the “protocol” finally did come through on the morning of our raucous public board meeting Sept. 15th, it did not say that it was confidential. Why would it be confidential if it was being touted by the Archbishop as the policy we were being asked to follow–a policy that needed to go to a public board meeting for three readings? So I would disagree with Chair Engel who stated that I “leaked” a confidential document– I did nothing of the sort. In fact, I sent the document to Braeden from Metro News on Sept. 20, 2015 again believing that it was not a confidential document and he did a story on it. I believe that what is happening here is that some people are embarrassed about the contents of the superintendents’ policy. Well, this is the policy that is now being suggested is only a guideline for superintendents. Now that the public sees it, perhaps they need to ask if they really want to see the superintendents use it as a guideline. I encourage you to contact ECSD trustees and the Minister of Education to express your opinion on this issue.
Regardless, all I was trying to do in my email to supporters, was give them a report on what the Board was doing to support transgender students and line up speakers for the October 13th meeting. I am fully in favour of the policy we are bringing forward which is based almost completely upon Edmonton Public School Board’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Policy. The policy will be posted on the Edmonton Catholic website prior to the October 13th.
This policy is not much different from the one our ad hoc committee brought forward on Sept. 15th because it too was based upon EPSB’s policy. The original policy was deferred at the Sept. 15th meeting because of a lack of consultation with the public. I beg to differ — we consulted a wide variety of people including a psychiatrist specializing in gender identity issues, a transgender Catholic woman, a parent of a transgender child, parent council chairs, retired teachers, and a representative of Safe and Caring Communities. We did try to consult with the archbishop but he was unavailable and did not offer any future dates for meeting.
We are now bringing forward another similar policy — without any public consultation as the Board has decided that these consultations will take place after it is brought forward for first and possibly second reading at the October 13th meeting. My question remains: why could the original policy not have been accepted for first and second reading on September 15th and have further public consultations after, just as we are proposing to do with this new policy?
I also want to set the record straight in regards to whether we were coerced or not to follow the Archbishop’s policy. We were sent a letter by His Grace asking us to “wait for and follow’ the superintendents’ policy. That is why there was so much rancor at our Sept. 15th meeting — our board was divided over whether we should follow his policy or our own. After meeting with the Minister of Education we have decided to go forward with a very good policy which I believe will protect our transgender students. I am looking forward to the October 13th meeting and hope that as many electors as possible can come out to support this good policy. If you wish to speak to it, you must contact ECSD Board Secretary Klotz no later than Friday, October 9th, 4:00 pm. Call 780-441-6000.