Feature: A showdown is looming in Alberta over parental rights in education, and this week, we interview an Edmonton-area Christian school principal on the latest threats from Education Minister David Eggen.
In the news..
Bubble Zone Law – The Ontario government has introduced the “Safe Access to Abortion Services Act”
Status of Women Committee – The Trudeau government is under increasing scrutiny over who gets to chair the Status of Women Committee
Wall Case – ARPA has filed its legal factum to the Supreme Court in a case involving church discipline
US Abortion Law – The US Congress has passed a major piece of pro-life legislation
The Ontario government is out with its long-promised “bubble zone” legislation to prohibit protests around abortion clinics. It’s called the “Safe Access to Abortion Services Act“, and it sets strict limits around where protests can take place. The restriction around abortion clinics is automatic; a 50-metre zone that can be expanded up to 150 metres. Hospitals and places where abortions are performed, or where the abortion pill is prescribed can also apply to get an “access zone” designation. The law prohibits all pro-life messaging, without exception, in those zones. The bill also responds to a court ruling earlier this year; a ruling in favour of ARPA and pro-life blogger Patricia Maloney. That ruling said the Ontario government couldn’t arbitrarily withhold all abortion statistics under the Freedom of Information Act.
We Need a Law articling student Tabitha Ewert says the new bill addresses that issue in two ways. “It replaces the complete exclusion of abortion information with (the notion) that information related to abortion cannot be released if it identifies individuals or a facility.” And she says the second exclusion is “a bit of an unknown”; that provision prohibits the release of any information that “could reasonably be expected to threaten the health or safety of an individual or the security of a facility.” She says that part of the law is still being analyzed.
ARPA is looking at various options to oppose the bill. Ewert says initially, those efforts will focus on lobbying MPP’s to vote against it, but if the bill does pass, there is “a potential for a legal challenge.” If you live in Ontario, you can send an EasyMail to your MPP on this issue at this link.
There was considerable furore on Parliament Hill last week over the appointment of a new Chair for the Status of Women Committee. By convention, the chair is always occupied by a non-government member of the Committee, and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer had nominated his Women’s Issues critic, Lethbridge MP Rachael Harder, to that position. However, when the nomination first came before the Committee, Liberal and NDP members walked out, protesting that Harder was pro-life and because of that, wasn’t able to properly represent women’s issues.
The Committee reconvened last week, and voted down Harder’s nomination. They then nominated another Conservative MP, Karen Vecchio, to the position. Vecchio didn’t want the nomination, but she couldn’t get the required unanimous consent from the Committee to decline, so she ended up with the appointment.
The episode has sparked multiple accusations that the Liberals are undemocratically imposing a pro-abortion agenda on the Committee, with op-eds and columns to that effect appearing in the National Post, the Globe and Mail, and even on the CBC website.
We Need a Law’s Anna Nienhuis says it’s interesting to see the almost universal media criticism of the government on this issue. “The media (seems to understand that) this doesn’t make sense. You’re talking about promoting women and empowering women (but then you) shut a woman down because you don’t like her opinion.” She says the commentary acknowledges that there are a variety of views represented in Parliament because “we want other voices. People are electing these voices, and we want to let them have that voice.”
Neinhuis says the attention this issue is getting is also positive in that it’s setting the stage for a national debate on the need for a so-called “international standards” abortion law. “People are thinking about it, and they’re talking about it without immediately jumping to pro-choice or pro-life. They’re jumping to ‘what’s actually right.’ So when something like the international standards law, which does take a really reasonable approach (on) regulating abortion in line with so many other countries that we are similar to in a lot of other ways; people might be willing, then, to consider it.”
ARPA lawyer John Sikkema has delivered the final paperwork to the Supreme Court of Canada in the “Wall Case”. That’s the case involving a Jehovah’s Witness congregant who wants the courts to overturn his dis-fellowshipping – essentially his excommunication – from a JW congregation near Edmonton. Sikkema says the complainant is arguing that being a member in a church is essentially “contractual”, and that courts are empowered to enforce contracts. Mr. Wall, Sikkema says, “expected (that) in return for participating in church (he would be) treated a certain way, (and that the congregation) broke their side of the bargain by not treating him fairly.”
Sikkema filed a 12-page factum; a summary of the legal arguments that ARPA is presenting in opposition to the idea that judges have any right to rule on cases of church discipline. “You can’t reduce a church, in its essence, to just a contract. Churches claim authority over people not based on a kind of voluntary agreement, but based on the authority that Christ gives to the Church, which is a spiritual authority. Churches have a claim to authority just like the State does. The Church respects the State’s sphere of authority, just as the State – including judges – should respect the Church’s sphere or authority.”
The case will be heard at the end of November. ARPA will have 5 minutes to present oral arguments.
There was a major development for the prolife movement down in the States last week. The US Congress voted to pass a new law called the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.”
We Need a Law Director Mike Schouten says the bill is a big step in the protection of the unborn, because it would essentially ban abortion after 20 weeks. “In its current form, it includes exceptions for rape and incest and for the (protection of the) health of the mother, so this obviously is not favourable from a pro-life perspective, but as (WeNeedaLaw has been saying), it’s certainly better to save some than (to) save none, so we view this as a very positive step.”
Schouten says pro-lifers in the US took a very deliberate lobbying tactic to get lawmakers to even consider this bill. “The significant and exciting part of this is that the pro-life movement in the United States has been very effective at keying in on the pain – the fetal pain – and the reality that we know that at 20 weeks, fetuses recoil from pain; that they feel pain in a similar way that you or I would. And they’ve used that to really build support” for the bill.
There is some question about the law’s ultimate fate, though. President Donald Trump has indicated he’ll sign it if it hits his desk, but the Senate isn’t making this a big priority, which means it could be months before anything happens.
And even then, Schouten says, pro-lifers might be forgiven for being a little bit skeptical: “We’ve seen a lot of pro-life legislation in the United States be introduced and passed, but then struck down by the courts. And I think that this piece of legislation – if passes through all three legislative bodies – will be subject to a court challenge at some point, and we’re not exactly sure what would transpire then.” He says there’s also a certain degree of skepticism because in the past, when this kind of legislation has been introduced, one or more of the three legislative bodies, (the House, the Senate, or the White House), haven’t passed them. Schouten says in that sense, “it’s ok to have some skepticism, although this time around the White House seems more favourably disposed to this type of legislation than previous administrations” have been.
There’s a showdown looming in Alberta between the government and parents who choose not to send their children to public schools.
Last week, Education Minister David Eggen put forward a plan to introduce a bill that would make it a crime for all schools – including private, independent, and Christian Schools – to communicate with parents if children in those schools decide to join so-called “Gay-Straight Alliance Clubs”, or if those children admit to struggling with gender identity issues.
The bill is expected to be introduced before Christmas.
On the feature interview this week, a conversation with Keith Penner. He’s the principal of the Living Waters Christian Academy in Spruce Grove, near Edmonton.
LN: The new developments in Alberta in the past week; they’ve been coming for a while. Fundamentally, what’s new in what the Minister is now saying?
KP: What is new is that he has decided that doesn’t (presently) have the legislative authority to do what he’s wanted to do, and so now he’s going to propose legislation to give him(self) the authority to do what he wants to do. And what he’s proposing is based on a lot of misinformation, and we wish that the other part of it would get out.
LN: So what is “the other part”? What’s really happening in private schools in terms of “safe and caring policies”, as he calls them?
KP: Well, he’s mentioned in the press that he’s been consulting with schools, and that we have been refusing to provide “safe and caring school policies.” This is false. We have safe and caring school policies. We submitted our policies to the government in March of 2016 – well over a year ago – and we have heard nothing from the government regarding these policies. Our policies clearly state that we will provide safe and caring support for all of our students. Our policies define bullying, and (specify) that it will be dealt with appropriately. And they also clearly state that all actions, programs, and policies will take place within the framework of the faith and community values of the school. And this is why parents choose to send their kids to our schools. Because they agree with – they value – the approach that the schools is taking. And so our policies state that we will use that as the way we support schools and work with parents.
That is what he doesn’t like. Because we’re not saying that we’ll do it the way he wants to do it; we’re saying we’ll do it to reflect the parental values and the faith community that parents have chosen. So for us, it’s a question of – really – integrity, and (of) what works.
LN: The Minister says that these schools are not supporting students. Is that even fair?
KP: No. Alberta Education’s own survey data clearly demonstrates that independent schools have higher-than-provincial averages for satisfaction from students, parents, and teachers regarding their safety, their culture, (and) the support that there is for students within these schools. Independent schools are monitored regularly by Alberta Education, and Alberta Education regularly puts in writing – in their feedback – just how great the culture is. How positive and supporting it is for students in these schools.
LN: So the Minister says he’s going to amend the School Act to make it illegal for schools to “out” students who want to join a GSA or something like that. Fundamentally – just review it for us again – why should we be concerned about this?
KP: Well this is something that I believe is deeply disturbing, and it should be for all Albertans; and actually all Canadians. The Minister is threatening to impose legislation that makes it illegal for schools to communicate with parents. Well, studies – and of course common sense – tells us that students thrive most fully, they’re the healthiest, through all of the challenges of growing up and becoming adults, when they have the support of their families. Any law that places institutions over family – that means even schools over families – any government that assumes from the starting line that families are not safe or that they’re dysfunctional or inadequate to support their own children… (that) should be deeply, deeply disturbing to society. We know that there are families that are struggling. And there’s already legislation in place to support children who may be in a threatening home environment. But for the government to assume as a default that families are dysfunctional and that schools must not – that it would become illegal for them to – communicate with these families and with parents? We should be at our heart just deeply disturbed and resisting this. It’s not a good trend.
LN: I have to ask. Is the minister ratcheting this stuff up because he thinks it’s a politically popular thing to do? I mean, is there any evidence that this notion of stripping parental rights has broader public support outside of the LGBTQ and trans community?
KP: Well, I don’t think that he has the support beyond his own little room of counselors. Albertans in general believe in family. They believe in parents raising their kids to be healthy and successful and thriving. And this idea that “the government knows best” is really not popular. What’s happening though is (that) the message is being engineered and twisted. The rhetoric is divisive. It’s meant to put people in a defensive position.
If you come to somebody and say: “So you think it’s OK to ‘out’ students?” Well, everyone is thrown back on their heels and goes “Well that’s such a negative concept.” The real issue here is “Should the government be allowed to withhold information from parents when their child is struggling?” That’s the real key question here, and the answer to that is unequivocally “No! They should not be allowed to do that.”
LN: We’ve all heard the old saying that “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” What’s the response to the notion that along with government funding – and independent schools in Alberta and home schoolers as well get considerable government funding – with that funding comes a certain right by the government to impose certain restrictions.
Should Christian schools or home schoolers be prepared to walk away from that government funding in exchange for more parental freedom? Is that what this is going to come down to?
KP: Well there again, we’re talking about a complex question. The Minister just recently made this one of his points. “They get public money, therefore they must abide by the law.” Again, not a lot of clarity or recognition that the complexity of it is (that) independent schools and home schoolers are providing the safest, most caring environment for their kids. So the idea that the government would really bring out a big hammer and say, “If you don’t abide by our new laws and restrictions, we’re gonna pull the funding”, is sad and unfair.
To be put in a position where we have to say we forego any funding to provide this quality education; I think that becomes a very, very sad state for Alberta and for freedom and parental choice and all the things we value as Albertans.