Alberta education minister vows to 'accommodate' religious views on gender-identity policies

Education Minister David Eggen said he had a "productive" meeting with the province's Roman Catholic bishops on Monday about his department's new gender-identity guidelines for Alberta schools.
Archbishop Richard Smith is defending the church's decision to refuse funerals to Albertans who have chosen to die by assisted suicide. (CBC )

Education Minister David Eggen suggested there may be some room for compromise after meeting with the province's Roman Catholic bishops on Monday about his department's new gender-identity guidelines for Alberta schools.

Eggen met with Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, Calgary Bishop Fred Henry, St. Paul Bishop Paul Terrio and auxiliary bishop Greg Bittman. He suggested there may be some room for compromise on how to best accommodate LGBTQ students in publicly-funded Catholic schools. 

"I can see a way by which we can sort this out based on the spirit of safe and caring schools that we all share, and I am certainly looking for a way by which we can accommodate theological beliefs and the letter of the law," Eggen said. 

"The letter of the law is not negotiable but certainly you can have ways by which an accommodation can be had and everyone can be satisfied." 

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith described the meeting as "warm" and "cordial." He said the discussion didn't get into details, because the boards are in the middle of formulating their policies. 

"It wasn't a meeting for negotiations, it wasn't a meeting for decisions, resolutions, or anything like that," Smith told reporters. "Just basically an opportunity to touch base."

He said Eggen understands that the Constitution protects Catholic school and that he must respect that as a minister of the Crown. 

Smith said the work of putting together policies is up to the trustees, now that the government and the bishops have weighed in. 

However, Smith said the church has a theological stance on human sexuality that the bishops have a responsibility to uphold. 

"Given this opportunity that we've had now for such open and frank dialogue, that gives me a certain confidence right now that we'll find the way forward that respects all, including the stance of the Catholic church on that," he said.

Education Minister David Eggen said he had a "productive" discussion with Alberta's Roman Catholic bishops Monday. (CBC )

'Spirit of collaboration'

Eggen did not elaborate on what kind of accommodation might be reached, but acknowledged there would be some "latitude."

"Latitude to ensure that the integrity and the protections that religion is allowed both in the province of Alberta and across the country are adhered to," he said, choosing his words carefully. "But that protection has never allowed faith-based edicts to compromise the letter of the law."

He said he will ensure that all students, regardless of gender identity or expression, will have safe and caring learning environments. 

"I won't compromise from that, and in the spirit of collaboration I think that all people in that spirit should move in that direction, and I think that they will."

The bishops have strongly opposed the province's guidelines, which are to be used by school boards to craft policies to support and protect students, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

Eggen has told all 61 school boards that these policies must be in place by the end of March. The directive also applies to Catholic boards, because they are publicly funded..

Policies in the document include allowing students to dress in clothing and participate on the sports team that reflects their gender identity and expression.

The document says students must be allowed to use the washroom they are most comfortable with and that all schools must have at least one single-stall washroom, but students should not be forced to use it unless they want to.

The policies also must ensure that all school staff are protected from discrimination, regardless of their gender identity, sexual orientation and gender expression.