Public school trustees in Steinbach, Man., have rejected a motion calling for them to lobby the Manitoba government to change part of its proposed anti-bullying law.
The board of trustees with the Hanover School Division voted against the motion on Tuesday night, after hearing from both sides of the debate surrounding Bill 18.
City councillors, Christian educators and others in the Steinbach area have argued that the bill infringes on their religious beliefs.
Their biggest concern is a clause that would force schools to accommodate students who want to start specific anti-bullying clubs, including gay-straight alliances.
More than 2,700 people living in the area have signed a petition voicing their opposition to Bill 18.
On Tuesday, trustee Lynn Barkman presented a motion to have the board "send a letter to the Minister of Education requesting that the proposed section 41 (1.8) of Bill C18 be changed to ensure equal treatment for all students, honouring the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, but not specifying certain groups while omitting others."
Barkman said she felt it was her responsibility to represent her constituents, adding that 95 per cent of people who have emailed her about Bill 18 are against it.
However, the trustees defeated the motion. The board agreed that it will accept and comply with Bill 18 should it become law.
'Very clear about where we stand'
Division officials said earlier this year that they had decided a year ago to accommodate students requesting gay-straight alliances in their public high schools.
"We've become very clear about where we stand. I thought we were earlier, but now we've had a chance publicly to state where we're at," board chair Randy Hildebrand told CBC News after the meeting.
Hildebrand said he was keenly aware of the opposition to Bill 18 in the community, as well as the pressure his board faced.
"There's been a lot of pressure; uncomfortable at times, no doubt. As a trustee, for myself, we need to do the things we feel are right," he said.
"There are heartfelt opinions and emotions within the community. Will that go away? I think the next step will be with the government and how they deal with the bill.
Steinbach Christian High School, an independent school, has said the government is infringing on religious freedoms with Bill 18.
Members of public weigh in
Trustees heard from three individuals prior to their vote.
Paul Galessiere argued that the number of students being bullied for their religious beliefs is statistically as high as those being bullied for their sexual preference.
Galessiere called Bill 18 a "limitation of freedoms" and said there is "no room for conscientious objectors" in the debate over the legislation.
Al Hiebert told trustees while he agrees that bullying is a serious issue, he believes anti-bullying laws should focus on fixing bullies' behaviour, not on the characteristics of the targets.
John Neufeld argued that Bill 18 would allow the school division to draft its own policies, since the proposed legislation allows for gay-straight alliances in schools but does not force officials to promote them.
"I find it astonishing that people are heated up about Bill 18. No one is being forced to promote the gay and lesbian lifestyle," Neufeld told trustees.
Steinbach city councillors passed a motion in March to pressure the provincial government into changing parts of Bill 18.