A conflict between anti-homophobia
education and religious freedom
A conflict in Toronto, ON, Canada during 2004:
This essay describes an event in Toronto, Ontario, Canada involving
homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and same-sex parenting . It
shows how people often talking past, rather than to, each other about
homosexuality. They promote their conclusions without attempting to reach
agreement on fundamentals.
The conflict could have easily happened elsewhere in Canada or
in Massachusetts, California, or any other U.S. state in which gays, lesbians
and bisexuals are rapidly gaining rights and protections, including the
right to marry. It could come to your jurisdiction
The incident involved:
Concerned Muslim parents who were concerned
about their freedom to teach their children to reject the legitimacy of
same-sex marriage and same-sex parenting, and
The local school board who wanted to teach
their students to understand, accept, and value sexual diversity.
In this instance, Muslim parents were involved.
However, it could have just as easily involved conservative Christians, Jews,
Muslims, Sikhs, or parents of other religious groups.
A parent-school board discussion:
A meeting was held at the Market Lane Public School
in downtown Toronto, ON during 2004-NOV. There were about 150 parents present -- mostly Muslims who
wanted to exclude their children from classes which the school board called "anti-homophobia 1 education."
The course teaches tolerance of families headed by same-sex parents. Of the 560 students at the
school, about 10 to 15% are Muslim; mostly having emigrated from North African
board has a policy of accommodating parents' religious rights. However,
Patricia Hayes, a human rights expert with the school board, said: "Religious
beliefs do not trump human rights." She also said that if Muslim
children were to get up and leave the room when the film was going to be
shown, "we would be creating a very toxic learning environment for those
At the meeting, a National Film Board Production
called "Sticks and Stones" was shown. The film is also used in
the anti-homophobia classes. It shows a number of interviews with children of same-sex parents.
One child in the film said: "The worst thing about having gay dads is
people make fun of you."
Some comments by those attending the meeting:
One of the Muslim parents leaving the meeting
was concerned that their religious rights to reject same-sex parenting had
received less respect than same-sex parents' rights had received. Mohamed Yassin said:
"They showed a gay lifestyle to the kids without the
knowledge of the parents. [The school board is]....willing to help gay
students with support. Gay people have their rights. I have my rights."
Michelle Flecker, a second equity worker, said:
"There is sometimes the
misunderstanding that anti-homophobia education is sex education. It does
not involve the explicit description of sexual activity. It discusses
She discusses the Toronto board's equity policy as:
"... one of
the most inclusive in North America. Anti-homophobia education does not
teach children that their family's religion is wrong. It does not influence
children's sexual orientation."
A lesbian introduced
her same-sex partner at the meeting and was applauded. She said:
"We're not talking about us having
sex; we're talking about my daughter receiving respect."
Alimamy Bangura, a member of the Campaign for Public
Education and a founder of the Muslim Education Network said:
Muslim community has been well received by the board. In every school where
accommodation has been requested by the Muslim community, the board has
responded very generously." 2
Reaction by the general public:
The Toronto Star's web site received over 400 responses to their newspaper
article on the Market Lane Public School meeting. Some reactions were:
"I agree with the decision but can only hope
that when Catholic, Protestant or Jewish parents make requests around
similar issues that the board stands up to them as well."
"The point is not about agreeing with
homosexuality, it's simply about respecting it. Regardless of what your
religious background dictates, no world religion out there tells anyone that
they should love their neighbor as they love themselves, but only if their
neighbor is of the same color, religion and sexual orientation. Are all
people not creations of God?"
"Canada has shown what it actually means by 'tolerance' by
forcing Muslim children to be subjected to ideas alien to Islam. Canada
will only be happy with Muslims once Muslims abandon Islamic thinking
and adopt secularism as a way of thinking."
Name deleted by request:
"Good for the school board. Being sensitive to
religious and cultural issues does not mean pandering to prejudice. On the
contrary, I think to do so would be patronizing. We should expect the same
level of decency and respect from all Canadians, regardless of religion or
lack thereof. As someone from a Muslim background, who's felt the sting of
homophobia first-hand, I say shame on the parents. What sorts of bigotry do
they want their children to inherit? The same kind that will eventually be
turned against them?"
"When children of same-sex families are being
ridiculed in school, then I think it's time that education about same-sex
families be brought into the school. Wasn't it not long ago that skin color
brought on bullying in schools? Let's educate our children so that everyone
may be treated equally."
"This issue has nothing to do with whether or not you are
for or against homosexuality. What the TDSB is trying to do is protect children
whose parents are homosexual from abuse at school. How could anyone be
"If the province's views are unacceptable, one can
always pursue privately funded education."
"We take out the Lord's Prayer, labeling it
'inappropriate', and now our tax dollars are spent in explaining same-sex
behavior? This new 'education' is a slap in the face to Christians; but we
are used to it by now."
"The school board is trying to teach children not to hate.
They are then looking at all the things children typically pick on and
trying to lessen the negative stereotypes surrounding these issues. I wonder
at parents who wish their children not to be taught tolerance. Telling a
child to stop hurting another does not teach them that a difference is
something they must embrace, merely that it is not something to use to
"Iím in a same-sex relationship and my partner and I have
a 2-year-old son. After reading all of the comments, I canít help but feel
real concern for how my son will be treated by the children of some of these
comment writers. All parents want their children to be treated with
tolerance and respect. Itís incredible to me that the [Toronto District
School Board] TDSB education program, which is aimed only at promoting tolerance
for children from same-sex families, becomes twisted in the minds of
many into an immoral message about sexuality. The goal is simply to
create a learning environment that is free from psychological harm for
children like my son."
"If the Muslim parents refuse to let their children
learn about Canadian multiculturalism and the respect of other peopleís
sexual preference, religion and culture, how are they themselves supposed to
"This is not just a Muslim issue. More Christians, as I am, and Jews
should be standing as firm as the Muslims on this issue of choice for what
we wish our children exposed to in the schools, regardless of the topic.
If gay-ed classes are to be permitted, at least allow equal time for
different faiths to be discussed in the schools, because faith is the
cornerstone of many families."
"My family and I are evangelical Christians and
the homosexual lifestyle is an abomination to our faith and the God we
serve...I am sick and tired of other groups shoving 'their' rights down my
throat while trampling all over mine. I have three children in the school
system and I have instructed them all to leave when these immoral
"When I immigrated to Canada, I was told that I will
have religious freedom as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights. Forcing
Muslims to let their children be taught ideas against the basic tenets of
their religion at a young age does not fit into this picture."
Reaction by the general public (Cont'd):
"Some argue 'the children will figure it out on their
own.' But if children are learning at such an early age to discriminate
against those with gay parents, then someone is teaching intolerance at
home, and schools have an obligation to respond."
"I hope the Board sticks to its guns on this. Religion
is not a 'get out of tolerance free' card, should not be dictating
curriculum or shutting down human rights education."
"Freedom 'of' religion cannot exist unless freedom 'from'
religion exists. Or should we have a 'debate' in Canada about which is the
One True Religion? Canada's beauty is that it is secular and the law is
"Teaching kids, regardless of their religion, that
our nation is made up of many types of people and many types of families can
only help them better understand the real meaning behind Canada's acceptance
towards all minorities."
"This issue is not really about homosexuality, religion
or sexual morality. It's about teaching children to treat each other with
kindness and respect. When I was in school many years ago, teachers neither
knew nor cared about such issues. Thus victimized kids were left to fend for
themselves. As well, no matter how much you disagree with something, such as
same-sex couples, this doesn't change the fact that they exist, and their
kids exist; and those kids, just like any other kids, have the right to
enjoy their childhood without the pain of bullying and taunting. Educating
children about differences is really a type of sensitivity training and
removing children from this training is sending them a very strong message -
a message of intolerance and non-acceptance."
"The public school system is under no obligation to
shield specific religious groups from reality. Mitigating the persecution of
any group, through education, is worthwhile."
"Tolerance needs to be taught at school
because it is not always taught at home. I wonder if this will result in
fewer suicides for gay youth. We can only hope."
"Shame on the Toronto School Board. What has happened to their
morals? Just because politicians have agreed to same sex marriage, does
not mean that the general population agrees."
"There is no need to teach this sensitive issue in our
schools. Children are being taught to tolerate homosexuality through TV
shows (Will & Grace, Spin City)."
"I believe that for a general education, it is
important to expose children to different situations. If a parent wants a
child to be taught according to the doctrines of a specific religion, then
send the child to the appropriate religious school, or at least supplement
their general education with visits to the local worship center of choice."
"I think it is great that the Board of Education
is pushing for all students to get this information so they can make a
intelligent decision on this issue for themselves without the prejudice that
adults and parents can inflict on their children." 3
Excerpts from two letters to the editor that were
published in the Toronto Star:
"...Illiberal thinking, identifying itself as
providing a higher standard of morality, is common to all of our religious
faiths. Intolerance toward those who dissent is a prime trait of the intensely
religious....A positive aspect of this sort of problem is that hidebound
conservative values are strongest among the older generation. Thus, we can
be assured that as times passes, Canadians will make progress toward a more
liberal and tolerant society, if only one funeral at a time."
"Schools should be safe, inclusive places for all students and
families -- including gays and lesbians. Muslim students should not be
permitted to sit out anti-homophobia education, any more than the
children of white supremacists should be allowed to sit out Black
History Month. If any parents do not like what it taught at a public
school, they can share their views with their child at the end of the
day and thank the school for fostering such a discussion." 4
Provincial Premier and others weigh in:
Reacting to the story of the school board meeting, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty
urged parents who seek to exclude their children from anti-homophobia education
to be more tolerant. He said:
"To me, this speaks to a kind of broader issue.
What kind of society do we want to live in; what kind of society are we trying
to build? I think the kind of society that we should all aspire to is where we
respect each other's difference. That's fundamentally what this is all about and
I think our children should be taught to respect the differences that we
manifest....It's important all our children -- all our children -- have the
opportunity to learn about those things that distinguish one of us from the
other and that they learn to respect those differences."
Suzanne Muir, diversity coordinator for the nearby Halton District School
Board who happens to be a Muslim said: We know that the students:
"...are going to be in class with kids of same-sex parents and
they have to respect that, treat everyone kindly and not exclude them....If
a kindergarten teacher is talking about who is in your family and a child
draws a picture of two dads, you can't ignore it and say: 'Draw a mommy'.
That's the reality of public schools. Families are different. We may not
agree, but we have to respect these families."
Tarek Fatah of the Muslim Canadian Congress supports the school
board's decision. He said that these families:
"...want selective human rights that protect them and
not others. These parents want absolute control of their children. They are
scared their children will grow up with their own thinking, that young women
will grow up with independent ideas."
Zafar Bangash, president of the Islamic Society of York Region said:
don't want our children subject to that kind of thinking. It's very clear in our
belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. It [same-sex marriage] goes
against the core beliefs of Muslims; our understanding springs directly from the
[That may have been a misquote, because Islam allows polygynous
relationships -- normally limited to one man and up to four women.]
Chris D'souza , equity officer at the Dufferin-Peel District School Board,
has organized a conference designed to sensitize teachers and administrators
to diversity issues. It was overbooked when more than 225 educators
signed up. He said: "It's current. It's in the media. People want to know
more about it." 5
On this website, we define "homophobia"
to be engaging in a behavior aimed at
restricting the human rights of persons who have a homosexual orientation and/or
who engages in homosexual behavior. More information.
Tess Kalinowski, "Muslim students can't skip gay ed. Matter of respect, public board says. 150 parents debate issue at meeting," The
Toronto Star, 2004-NOV-17, Page A1 and A22.