Kelly Ernst Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association

Kelly Ernst chaired a series of hearings regarding GSAs in Alberta schools. (Sheldon Chumir Foundation)

Calgary Bishop Fred Henry is being widely criticized, after he penned a letter opposing the province's new LGBTQ guidelines for schools, calling them "anti-Catholic" and "totalitarian."

"One of the key principles that is often overlooked … is the idea that ongoing abuse exists within Alberta schools, particularly directed toward LGBTQ students," says Kelly Ernst, president of the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association (RMCLA).  

He says the provincial guidelines — released earlier this week — are designed to protect students from bullying, harassment, and harm in Alberta schools.

GSA 'misunderstanding'

Twelve new guidelines include allowing transgender students to use their washroom of choice, and to dress or play on sports teams according to their own perception of their gender.

Bishop Fred Henry

Bishop Fred Henry, 72, was installed as the seventh bishop of Calgary in 1998. (CBC)

In his letter to the Calgary Catholic Diocese, Bishop Henry also voiced his disapproval of gay-straight alliances or GSAs, calling them "highly politicized ideological clubs" – a "clear misunderstanding" of their mandate, according to Ernst, who chaired the hearings regarding GSAs in Alberta schools.

"I feel it is quite important to address this misinformation," Ernst wrote on the RMCLA blog.

'Important things are never necessarily easy to achieve' - Education Minister David Eggen

"When a GSA gets set up in a school, it's a voluntary club… So if your personal or religious belief is so diametrically opposed to what a GSA is about, you don't need to attend those,"said Ernst, noting that the bishop's office declined several invitations to participate in the hearings.

His remarks come as the province moves forward with creating individually tailored policies in 61 school districts, including Catholic ones, to ensure that LGBTQ students are respected.

Education Minister David Eggen said discussions with school boards will continue and there will soon be meetings with Catholic Church leaders as well.

"Certainly I knew this wasn't going to be easy, but important things are never necessarily easy to achieve," Eggen told The Canadian Press Thursday.

'Shocking'

Pace Anhorn, director of Young Queer Church in Calgary, says he fully supports the province's guidelines, because he says LGBT youth face higher rates of homelessness and suicide than the rest of the population.

Pace Anhorn

Pace Anhorn is the director of a new faith project for young LGBT Christians. 'Trying to solidify that homophobia is OK. That kind of bothers me,' he says of the bishop's remarks. (CBC)

"It's a little bit shocking that [he] takes it to that degree, that this is a radical sexual movement and that we are setting up these ideological clubs," said Anhorn, who is a transgender man.

School boards have been given until the end of March to approve their own policies, which must conform with the provincial guidelines.

'Glacially slow' change

Tonya Callaghan is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary with a focus on anti-oppression education, specifically looking at homophobia in Catholic schools.

Tonya Callaghan

Tonya Callaghan, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, says "change is glacially slow in the Catholic Church." (CBC)

She's not surprised by the bishop's remarks, but calls the remarks "totalitarian."

"Change is glacially slow in the Catholic Church," Callaghan said.

"However the Catholic Church is known for apologizing for its anti-Semitism in the Second World War, it apologized for the Galileo thing. So maybe one day they'll realize that this particular stance they're taking is discriminatory, oppressive and should be abolished."

She hopes the Catholic Church opens up to LGBTQ rights.