It's best for everyone if the resolution to gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in religious schools is not left up the courts, agreed the opposing sides of a public debate Wednesday at the University of Alberta.

"You are not going to have religious schools change their view on what it is to be human, or on what sexuality is, or what gender is," said Kent Donlevy, an associate professor at the University of Calgary's Werklund School of Education.

"They can't change it because it's part of their faith."

Donlevy argued on behalf of religious schools' freedom to practice and teach their respective faiths, without government interference, even when those beliefs bar students from forming GSAs.

His opponent Kristopher Wells, director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, countered that such alliances are crucial to the wellbeing of LGBTQ students, "to help these young people navigate hostile hallways and move from trying to just simply survive every day in their school environment."

Kristopher Wells

Gay-straight student alliances help LGBTQ students feel supported and safe, says Kristopher Wells, director of the University of Alberta's Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

In Alberta, schools must allow their students to establish GSAs, or queer-straight alliances.

Staff are encouraged to guide these alliances, so students can "be connected with teachers and supports that enable them to thrive and see their school experience as something positive that they want to continue," Wells said.

In January, two Alberta bishops rejected the province's freshly-printed gender-identity guidelines which reinforced students' rights to form GSAs regardless of their schools' faith.

In September two Edmonton schools belonging to the Baptist Christian Education Society also rejected the guidelines.

Education Minister David Eggen said he would not rule out withholding funds of schools that refused to comply.

'Sometimes law is not the answer'

Donlevy, a lawyer who is also certified with the Alberta Teachers' Association, said he hopes disputes about GSAs can be resolved without resorting to legal action.

"Sometimes law is not the answer," he said.

"Leave law aside, leave that statute aside and let's just bring these people together to begin to talk about how they can create an agreement between the two of them whereby faith communities can exist on their own, independent of being compelled by the state to change their fundamental beliefs by creating GSAs in the school."

Above all, Donlevy said schools and politicians must remember those caught in the crossfire of their dispute. 

"We're all moving in the same direction which is to help and take care of children," he said. 

Wells agreed that students' interests are best served if GSAs do not become mired in legalities.

Like Donlevy, he hopes for a discussion that leaves both sides satisfied. But here, Wells added, there is an impasse: neither side can relinquish their stance without also letting go of what they claim to be their rights.

"How do we find common ground? How do we actually go about putting the needs of students above debates?

"The more heated and polarized things get, the more that we leave it to the courts to intervene. We always take a risk. Neither side of the issue might like the result of the courts."