Edmonton Catholic board enmeshed in fresh controversy

Catholic school trustees working to draft a policy of inclusion for transgender students found themselves enmeshed in controversy again Thursday, when a leaked document touched off another war of words.

Board chair accuses fellow trustee of being 'destructive' by leaking document over transgender policy

Catholic board chairwoman Debbie Engel says the leaking document was intended to guide trustees in drafting new policy. (CBC)

Edmonton Catholic school trustees working to draft a policy of inclusion for transgender students found themselves mired in controversy again Thursday, when a leaked document touched off another war of words.

The document was written by the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta, and was intended to help guide trustees as they draft their new policy.

In the four-page document, the council of superintendents said that gender identity, according to Catholic teaching, is rooted in biology.

Quoting from the National Catholic Bioethics Centre, they wrote that human beings are "obligated to regard [their bodies] as good and to hold [them] in honour since God has created them. Therefore, to attempt 'gender transitioning' is contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church."

The document was sent to media outlets by Patricia Grell, the Catholic trustee who has taken up the cause of a seven-year-old transgender girl who wants to use the girl's washroom at her school.

Grell's move to make the document public angered board chairwoman Debbie Engel.

"I think that trustee Grell, putting out this internal document ahead of time, has been destructive to the process," Engel said. "It was an internal document, and it was for use by boards to assist them in their decision making. The archbishop saw an issue out there, he wanted to be proactive as boards grappled with it."

Lorraine Turchansky, spokesperson for the Edmonton archdiocese, said the role of the archbishop is simply to advise school boards on matters of faith.

"It would be wrong to characterize that as a policy," she said.

The board has has been trying for months to accommodate the teachings of the Catholic faith on one hand and the rights of transgender students on the other.

In May, Grell wrote a blog post speaking out against a controversial decision to make a transgender girl use a gender-neutral washroom at her school.

The debate simmered throughout the summer. At one point, Catholic school trustee Larry Kowalczyk said transgender students should be considered as having a mental illness.

Things boiled over in mid-September, when trustees debating the issue shouted at each other. One of them wept.

That meeting prompted Education Minister David Eggen to step in. He ordered the board to a draft a policy that conforms to Canadian law and human rights legislation.

Asked about the latest development, Eggen said: "This document means nothing. The trustees have been working very hard. And they assured me again today that they are working to a coherent policy that is in compliance with the law."

A draft of the policy the board has been working on was also leaked to the media.

"The board will not tolerate harassment, bullying, intimidation, or discrimination on the basis of a person's actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression," the draft policy reads.

Engel said that draft is based on a similar policy the Edmonton public board has had for years.

"It isn't anything we're not already doing," she said, "in terms of caring for children, respecting their identity."


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