Some Manitoba religious schools say the government is infringing on their religious freedoms with its new anti-bullying law.

About 1,000 staff, students and parents met Sunday night in the gymnasium at Steinbach Christian High School for an information and prayer event regarding Bill 18.


A sign outside Steinbach Christian High School announces the prayer event for Sunday. (Ryan Hicks/CBC)

A clause in the bill concerns some religious educators and school communities because it would force schools to accommodate students who want to start specific anti-bullying clubs, including gay-straight alliances.

"Independent schools should have the right to direct and ensure any organizations meeting in their school will not be contradictory to their faith principles," said Scott Wiebe, principal of Steinbach Christian.

He asked people at the meeting to write letters to provincial politicians with their concerns over Bill 18.

Former Steinbach Christian student Jeremy Dyck also opposes the law.

"Sixty years ago, being gay was a mental disease. We’ve come a long way from calling them mentally unstable but at the same time it’s not what the faith base of this school is," he said.

Bill 18 would apply to both public and funded independent schools, like Steinbach Christian. Funded independent schools receive 50 per cent of their funding from the government, the rest through tuition and donations. There are 14,000 students in Manitoba that attend funded independent schools, most of which are faith-based.

Educators in the religious school community also worry the definition of bullying is too broad.

"We have concerns that if we had parents and students that might feel their feelings might be hurt in terms of a church teaching or policy that would be considered bullying. So that would go against the faith dimension of our schools," said Robert Praznik, director of education for Winnipeg Catholic Schools and chair of the Manitoba Federation of Independent Schools.

No exemptions

Entrepreneurship Minister Peter Bjornson, a former high school teacher, speaking on behalf of Education Minister Nancy Allen, said there will be no exemptions to the new law.

"That would be suggesting we can exempt schools from providing a safe and nurturing environment. That’s not an option," he said.

Chad Smith with Winnipeg’s Rainbow Resource Centre applauds Bill 18. He said it hits the right note for all types of bullying.

"I actually think it’s very progressive and it’s quite good and it will be very good for students across our province and within our city," he said.

Smith says it’s crucial the legislation addresses bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He points to a 2011 study revealing, "20.8 per cent of LGBTQ students indicated being physically harassed due to their sexual orientation, compared to 7.9 per cent of non-LGBTQ participants."

The study was done by Egale Canada Human Rights Trust (ECHRT), a national charity promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) human rights through research, education and community engagement.

Smith says it’s also important the law specifically refers to gay-straight alliances.

"We need to be able to say 'gay-straight alliance' because if we can't even say those words, then what's the message that we're sending to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students — that those aren't words that are OK to talk about?"

Religious school won’t 'roll over and play dead'

Retired University of Manitoba education professor John Long thinks debate over Bill 18 could pour into the courts.

"You have the makings of a legal wrangle and it will cover the waterfront of the issues. Namely, what exactly are the obligations of schools which receive partial government funding with respect to the dictates of a public authority," he said.

"Why ought they be obligated to sustain and promote values which their religion suggests are not necessarily appropriate," said Long, who also opposes the bill.

He questions the government's rationale for tabling the anti-bullying law.

"One does wonder whether the NDP's position on Bill 18 is an inadvertent afterthought or it's a deliberate provocation because I don't see how a reasonable person … would think a religious school would roll over and play dead," Long says.

'I just really hated myself'

Xavier Raddysh, 17, wishes every school would have a gay-straight alliance.

Raddysh is in the midst of transitioning from female to male. Up until a year ago, the transgender Dakota Collegiate student wrestled with his gender identity, feeling like a male, but trapped in the body of a female.

"I didn’t feel comfortable, I didn’t feel right, I didn’t feel like I was who I wanted to be," says Raddysh.

The struggle with his gender took a dangerous turn a number of times. Raddysh says he self-harmed with razor blades and tried committing suicide four times.

"Mostly, I just really hated myself," he said.

Raddysh turned to his school’s gay-straight alliance for support.

"If I didn’t have it, I probably would be dead or dropped out," he said.

He wants all students, in all schools, to have access to the kind of support he had.

"Would you rather keep your religion because that’s what your God says … and then let one of your children of God die because you do not give him the freedom to have a gay-straight alliance and have that support?"

Bill 18 has yet to reach first reading in the legislature, but a spokesperson for the government tells the CBC the anti-bullying law is expected to pass in time for September.