TORONTO — The government of Canada’s largest province has backed down from statements by a senior cabinet minister last week calling the Catholic school system’s pro-life teachings illegal and anti-women.

In a confrontation similar to that between U.S. Catholic institutions and the Obama administration over the federal contraception mandate, the minority government of Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty called Catholic teaching on abortion “misogynistic” and indicated it was a violation of the government’s new anti-bullying law, the Accepting Differences Act, also known as Bill 13.

The controversy started Oct. 10, when a reporter asked Education Minister Laurie Broten whether Catholic schools, which are fully funded by the provincial government, ought to be letting students out of class to attend “anti-abortion” rallies.

According to CTV News, Broten responded, “We do not allow — and we are very clear with the passage of Bill 13 — that Catholic teachings cannot be taught in our schools that violate human rights. … Taking away a woman’s right to choose could arguably be one of the most misogynistic actions that one could take.”

Broten reportedly added that she didn’t see a conflict between Catholic teaching and women’s “right to choose.”

Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto responded quickly in a fundraising speech, asserting that the Catholic system’s doctrinal independence and very existence are guaranteed by the Canadian Constitution. He praised this constitutional arrangement for “producing a healthy competition from which all benefit, but also a fruitful collaboration” with the secular public schools.

The Toronto-based Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) was more combative. “The right to life from conception to natural death is a core teaching of Catholicism,” said the league’s executive director, Joanne McGarry. “Ms. Broten is clearly ill-informed.”

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada agreed. Given that she is also the minister for women’s issues, stated its legal counsel, Faye Sonier, “It should be of serious concern that she’s unaware that there’s no right to abortion in Canada.”

Canada has had no legal restrictions on abortion since the country’ s Supreme Court invalidated the existing law in 1988, which required the woman to persuade a medical panel that birth would endanger her health. But that 1988 decision did not recognize a right to abortion per se.

A group that formed a year and a half ago to fight Bill 13, Parents as First Educators, also weighed in. The group’s president, Teresa Pierre, likened the education minister’s views to “the HHS mandate in the United States that forces hospitals and schools … to provide insurance that covers contraception — despite the obvious insult to Catholic teaching.”


Government Bullies Schools

This was not the first time Bill 13 has been invoked by the provincial government against Catholic moral teaching. Since first announcing the bill, the province has focused on the need to defend homosexuals from bullies, even though most school bullying is triggered by body image, school grades and ethnicity not sexual preference.

The bill also called on schools to create so-called Gay-Straight Alliance clubs whenever students requested them. When the Catholic bishops and schools developed their own approach, which would not have condoned homosexuality and which offered “Respecting Difference” clubs that would have addressed the bullying issue, the government simply ignored their proposal and passed Bill 13 unchanged last spring.

Reluctantly, the school trustees and Ontario’s bishops said they would obey the law.

Now, however, they may be preparing to take a stronger stand. In his comments at the fundraising dinner, Cardinal Collins asserted that the Catholic system’s right to develop its own anti-bullying approach was protected by the Canadian Constitution, just like the Church’s teaching on abortion.

Conflict over denominational schools was a staple of politics north of the border even before Britain’s North American colonies federated into Canada in 1867. Protestant Ontario agreed to join only if the Protestant minority in Quebec got its schools guaranteed in the Canadian Constitution, while Catholic Quebec insisted on the same for Ontario’s Catholic minority.

“The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized again and again that these schools are protected,” Phil Horgan, the president of the Catholic Civil Rights League, told the Register. But even if they weren’t, he added, “we should never forget that the money that pays for Catholic schools comes from Catholic taxpayers.”

And from Catholic voters. Though Canadian Catholics rarely vote as a bloc, Ontario’s Liberal government may be afraid to provoke the third of provincial voters who are Catholic, especially since Liberals are on such shaky political ground these days. Premier McGuinty, himself a Catholic, has just announced he will resign shortly.

Moreover, his government is in a minority position in the provincial parliament, kept in office only with the unreliable support of the socialist New Democratic Party.


Duck and Cover

Just how wary the government was of Catholic reaction against Broten’s pro-abortion push against Catholic schools was signaled by how quickly it ducked and covered at the first sign of resistance.

First, Broten’s spokeswoman, Paris Meilleur, said the minister’s comments were taken out of context, explaining that Broten’s comments related to her concern that the government’s main opponents in the provincial Legislature, the Progressive Conservatives, were about to challenge government funding for abortion.

“Taking away a woman’s right to choose — that’s different from teaching a pro-life perspective,” Meilleur said.

Then Broten issued her own conciliatory statement. She said, “The government of Ontario is committed to support for Catholic education and denominational rights. … The discussions of the last week were not about what is taught or is not taught in our Catholic schools.”

Broten’s retreat won’t stop the larger discussion about whether tax-funded sectarian schools belong in Canada’s increasingly secular — and sexually permissive — culture.

Canada’s best-known abortion advocate, Joyce Arthur of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League, told the Register, “The issue here is taxpayer funding of Catholic schools. Religious schools should not be taxpayer funded. If they weren’t, they could teach whatever they want, within reason.”

Added Arthur, “The constitutional guarantee of doctrinal independence for Ontario Catholic schools was a mistake, especially if it gives a school the right to teach discrimination and traditional gender roles that oppress women.”

The CCRL’s Horgan and McGarry both rejected Joyce’s argument as unfounded, especially given that the pro-abortion movement in Canada opposes any limitation to abortion on demand, even  a ban on sex-selective abortion, a practice imported by Asian immigrants that almost always targets unborn female babies. “They are the misogynists,” McGarry said.

So far, only a few New Democratic Party members of the provincial Parliament and the leader of the memberless Green Party have called for defunding Catholic schools. 

But one ad-hoc group devoted to disestablishment, One School System, insists on its website that the constitutional guarantees are pretty weak.

“Ontario’s constitutional ‘obligation’ to fund Roman Catholic separate schools is largely illusory,” the group claims. “Quebec, Newfoundland and Manitoba all removed or ignored very similar constitutional ‘obligations’ before moving to a single public-school system.”

But, according to Horgan, under the Canadian Constitution, any action to defund the Catholic schools or force them to teach a non-Catholic doctrine could be countered by an appeal to the courts or to the federal government.

“The Catholic schools express the fundamental right of parents to control their children’s education,” Horgan said. “This right predates government.”

In the view of Teresa Pierre of Parents Are First Educators, Bill 13 was never about bullying and “always about advancing the rights agenda.” She believes Broten’s hasty retreat from her statement is an opportunity for Catholics to “help Òntario politicians to recognize the valuable role Catholic schools play in the province’s multicultural society.”

Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.