Staff and students who have formed a gay-straight alliance at an alternative Christian high school in Sherwood Park say they hope it helps other alternative schools navigate the often bitter divide over LGBTQ rights in the classroom.

Last fall a small group of students at Strathcona Christian Academy Secondary, which operates under the Elk Island public school board, put in a request to form a GSA, which now meets weekly.

"The students were motivated to try to get something right that might be helpful to other schools, especially other alternative schools around the province," said pastor Greg Hochhalter of the Sherwood Park Alliance Church (SPAC), which is affiliated with the academy. "And I think the students tried to rise to that occasion."

Under the School Act, amended by Bill 10 passed while the previous PC government was in power, all Alberta students have the legal right to form a GSA and call it by that name. Critics say the law infringes on parental and religious rights.

Last year a pastor refused to allow GSAs at his two Edmonton-area private schools. The province conducted an inquiry but has not released the findings.

Pastor Greg Hochhalter, Sherwood Park Alliance Church

Pastor Greg Hochhalter says students were motivated to create a GSA that might be helpful for alternative schools.

The Strathcona Christian Academy Society has taken a much different approach.

A Nov. 22 letter from the church informed parents that students requested a GSA and the board instructed the school to comply.

"The SCA society would prefer that peer-support networks are not targeted to a specific group of students," the letter reads. "We recognize that students who identify as LGBTQ may feel especially vulnerable and we wish to ensure that these students feel protected, are treated with dignity, and are given the same love and care as all others."

After the letter was sent, Hochhalter said a number of parents called — some supportive and encouraging and a few that were quite negative — but after talking it through "most people say it makes sense."

Students choose club name

He said students chose not to name their group a gay-straight alliance, which would have "probably been more explosive." Instead, in consultation with staff, they chose the name Sexuality and Gender Acceptance — or SAGA.

"SAGA was chosen by the students, in their minds because it's respectful, it's inclusive and perhaps even more inclusive than the name GSA because that actually is a little bit binary and somewhat limiting," Hochhalter said.

Bryan Mortensen, executive director of the altView Foundation for Gender Variant and Sexual Minorities, said the academy has made "great progress" on the GSA issue, noting "they had worked on making it happen" for some time.

'Kids across this province need to know that the law is on their side and if they want to start a GSA they can.' - Duncan Kinney, Progress Alberta

"I think it sends a signal that if you go in with the right attitude, and you're attempting to do something positive for our youth, that it will probably work out," he said.

Still, Mortensen said he was concerned by some parts of the Nov. 22 letter.

"Be assured that instruction and guidance within our schools will continue to privilege the conviction that God's original intent was sexual union reserved for full expression within the context of a marriage covenant relationship between a man and a woman," the church wrote. "The SCA Society board is significantly concerned with Bill 10 and the manner in which it has been enacted into law."

Mortensen suggested that "when you add that messaging in it dilutes the positive impact and the fact that they are making great progress."

He added: "And I think it gives legitimate cause for some concern about what the messaging will be inside the GSA."

'Derogatory tone'

Former education minister Thomas Lukaszuk praised the "enormous courage" of the students. But he denounced what he saw as the "derogatory tone" of the letter from the church.

"Imagine being a child in one of those schools where they're merely tolerating you because they have to, not because they embrace you and because they want to," Lukaszuk said.

Lukaszuk also questioned how free academy students were to use the word "gay" in the name of their club.

"Until those students actually can refer to themselves as gay ... when that word is no longer taboo in those circles, those kids are not equal," he said.

Duncan Kinney, the executive director of the Progress Alberta group which says it is devoted to building "a more progressive Alberta," said the academy's new GSA is "an example of the PC's progressive legacy" in action. 

"This is exactly why we needed Bill 10 in the first place," he said. "The letter is pretty clear that this school would not have gotten a GSA without the legislation."

He added: "Kids across this province need to know that the law is on their side and if they want to start a GSA they can."

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca        @andreahuncar