Five months after BC’s ministry of education announced that all school districts need to protect LGBT students through mandatory anti-bullying policies, Xtra has learned that private school admissions policies are exempt from the ministry’s order.
At least two private schools, both of which receive funding from the provincial government, have anti-LGBT admissions policies posted online that restrict marriage to heterosexual couples.
Both schools describe their communities as “a group of believers in and followers of Jesus Christ” who strive to honour their faith commitment in all aspects of life.
Both say they expect “all persons with influence over our students to model behavio[u]r and lifestyle choices consistent with the Christian walk of faith,” and both require students and teachers to “refrain from sexual misconduct such as adultery [and] sexual relationships outside of marriage.”
Both schools also receive money from the provincial government.
The amount of their funding is based on enrolment numbers, and is equivalent to half of what the government provides each public school per student in the same district. (Though some independent schools receive just 35 percent of public school funding per student, if their operating costs are higher than the district’s average per-student grant amount. All independent schools receive the same funding as public schools for students with special needs and for online courses.)
Advocates for LGBT students say they’re disappointed the minister’s order didn’t address private school admissions policies. Glen Hansman, president of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, says it sends a mixed message to LGBT youth.
“It’s very problematic because it’s inconsistent to on the one hand say we’re going to ensure, under the code of conduct order, a safe and inclusive environment for all identified groups under the BC Human Rights Code including LGBTQ youth — but at the same time potentially exclude those students through admission policies.”
Spencer Chandra Herbert, the NDP MLA for Vancouver-West End, says he’s not surprised the minister’s order doesn’t fully protect LGBT students at private schools. That was one of his first concerns when the policy change was announced, he tells Xtra.
“Exclusionary policies like that don’t make our province safer and in fact lead to greater divisions,” Chandra Herbert says.
Public schools are about bringing communities together, he explains. They’re about “meeting your neighbours, people who are different from yourself,” which in turn creates a “united community of diversity.” The problem arises when private schools take public money but “only allow certain types of people to attend,” he says.
“How is it somehow acceptable in this day and age [to say] that ‘you can’t come to our school if you’re gay?’” he asks. “That seems to be what they’re trying to do here.”
He says the BC Liberals’ order to support LGBT students was long overdue but still doesn’t go far enough to make sure kids have safe access and inclusion in “all the schools who receive tax money in BC.”
The discrepancy between some of these admission policies and the ministry’s new LGBT order raises the question of where religious freedoms should end and where human rights begin.
Education Minister Mike Bernier would not provide an interview for this article. Asked by email why his order did not extend to admissions policies, the ministry of education provided a statement saying, “we believe in safe, respecting and inclusive schools,” later adding that “the Human Rights Code provides exemptions for specific organizations or corporations to give preference.”
While BC’s Human Rights Code protects LGBT people from discrimination, it also provides an exemption for non-profit religious or other organizations that exist to promote the interests and welfare of a specific group, such as a group with a common faith.
Chandra Herbert says he’d like the government to take a stronger stance on independent schools. He recognizes certain religious freedoms, but doesn’t think the government should be supporting schools with exclusionary policies.
“I think people are allowed to have their religions,” he says. “But once they start providing a public service, and get supported or subsidized through public money, they have a duty to do that in a way that includes . . . that whole human family.”
Xtra phoned and emailed the Langley Christian School and Abbotsford Christian School to request an interview with each, but did not hear back before deadline.
Each school can set its own policy, he said, and these may vary from “open enrolment” to “restrictive enrolment that is specific to a particular faith.”
Froese acknowledged that the ministry’s new policy requires BC’s private schools to protect LGBT students from bullying — “while remaining consistent with the school’s faith values, cultural perspectives and philosophical values,” he said.
Asked if an independent school’s “faith values” could override protection for some LGBT students, Froese said schools are allowed to set their own enrolment policies but once enrolled, students would be protected against gender and sexual orientation-based discrimination, no matter whether the independent school is faith-based, secular, special needs-based, or pedagogical like Montessori.
Xtra examined enrolment policies of 15 private Christian schools in BC, as well as the BC Muslim School and a handful of private Catholic schools. While most schools require families to support their children in a religious practice outside of school, only the Langley and Abbotsford Christian schools contain explicitly anti-LGBT admission requirements. Some of the schools have enrolment forms that request contact information from a mother and a father (leaving no room for same-gendered parents), and the Duncan Christian School makes no mention of sexual orientation or gender identity as grounds for protection in its admissions procedure, but says no child will be denied admission on the basis of race, colour or national origin.
Even as some admission policies raise questions, some faith-based private schools in BC have adopted a transgender inclusion policy. After a human rights claim was launched against the Catholic Independent Schools of Vancouver Archdiocese, the association adopted a policy in 2014 that says its schools will support gender nonconforming students and respect their chosen name and gender. However, the policy distinguishes this from “gender transitioning,” which it says is “contrary to Catholic teaching, and therefore the Catholic school cannot support any transitioning actions.” The association’s website also links to literature arguing against same-sex marriage.
The question of funding private schools is complicated. Some argue that providing independent schools with public funding keeps them accountable in other important ways because it ensures schools follow the BC curriculum.
Jason Ellis, assistant professor in education at the University of British Columbia, suggests that a common curriculum for all students may benefit society at large.
“If your view is that the BC curriculum teaches certain civic values and core types of knowledge and types of competencies that are generally required and beneficial to children who are going to grow up and live in a civil society in BC then . . . having everyone follow that curriculum is advantageous,” he says.
Since funding for BC private schools is based partly on a school’s adherence to the provincial curriculum and teaching standards, Ellis says it can be argued that funding is a tool to ensure they teach the curriculum.
Chandra Herbert disagrees. He says that in allowing schools to discriminate, their teachings are contrary to the BC curriculum. “The BC curriculum teaches that you can’t discriminate against gay people yet these schools are discriminating against gay people by banning them from attending, so I think it’s something the education minister needs to take an immediate look at,” he says.
Chandra Herbert says he would like to see the schools fund themselves and receive less public funding, or none at all. “If they want to shut the door to gay people then they can run it themselves and fund it themselves.”
“You can’t claim that your school is following anti-bullying behaviour and embracing diversity and the Human Rights Code on one hand, as the minister does, and then on the other, embrace them banning gay people from being anywhere on their premises,” he says.