Premier to allow free vote on bill expanding parental rights in schools

The Alberta legislature will hold a free vote on Bill 44, legislation to give parents the right to pull their their children out of classroom discussions about sexual orientation.

The Alberta legislature will hold a free vote on Bill 44, legislation to give parents the right to pull their children out of classroom discussions about sexual orientation, sexuality and religion, Premier Ed Stelmach said in Tuesday afternoon's question period.

"In our caucus, I don't have to threaten anybody," Stelmach said in response to a question from Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann. 

"Yes, all members will have the right to a free vote."

Debate on proposed amendments, which would enshrine parental rights into the province's human rights legislation, is scheduled to start Tuesday evening. 

It comes after the province's Progressive Conservative government  announced it would introduce a last-minute amendment to the bill.

Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett said a new section will be added Tuesday making it clear that there will be no restrictions on classroom discussions that may arise about these topics. Parents will only be allowed to remove their children from lessons that are in the approved curriculum.

Student submits petition

A Lethbridge high school student has sent the provincial government a petition against Bill 44.

Oba Powis, a Grade 11 student at Lethbridge Collegiate Institute, collected more than 750 signatures and two dozen support letters.

"I didn't think it was right that a parent could take a teacher to court over such matters as the parent hiding the kid from sexual orientation, sexuality and religion," he said. "Also the other major point is that I believe students should all have an equal right to learn everything they want to learn."

Powis, who wants to become a teacher, said he has yet to receive a response from the government.

"We want to make sure that this won't apply to incidental or indirect references to religion, human sexuality or sexual orientation," Blackett said Monday.

Along with the Tory amendment, the Liberals are expected to introduce four amendments and the NDP plan to make eight.  Debate is expected to go late Tuesday night.

The changes the government is proposing are part of amendments to Alberta's human rights legislation that will grant protections to homosexuals, known as Bill 44.  Critics have said the province is giving parents the right to pull their children from classroom discussions to placate right-wing members of the Tory caucus who might have otherwise opposed giving gays and lesbians protections under Alberta law.

Alberta teachers have charged the original amendments would have resulted in them having to appear in front of a human rights tribunal. But Blackett said the province will make it clear initial complaints should be made with the principal and the school boards, not the human rights commission.

The president of the Alberta School Boards Association, Heather Welwood, said the changes appear to address the concerns of school boards and teachers, but she wonders why the province had to put the parental opt-out in human rights legislation in the first place, since the School Act already allows parents to pull their children out of classes.

"What we have now is working, so we didn't see a need for strengthening this in the human rights commission but obviously there's some other factors at work," Welwood said.

Welwood also wonders why school boards and teachers weren't consulted before the bill was even introduced.