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Bill 44 Passes Second Reading

05/21/09

  01:53:56 am, by Nimble   , 1489 words  
Categories: Common Sense, Politics, Religion, Science

Bill 44 Passes Second Reading

This bill has been causing some stir in Alberta.

Essentially, the bill modifies the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act RSA-2000 cH-14 here with modifications that, for the most part, add sexual orientation to these protected categories:

race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, physical disability, mental disability, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income or family status of that person or class of persons or of any other person or class of persons.

So why all the big fuss? Well, a couple of reasons: one, there's an addition to the act that, seemingly out of the blue, protects students from educational exposure or testing of:

subject-matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation

Two: a comment by the premier of the province, Ed Stelmach. From a CBC article:

Although Stelmach has confirmed the bill will give parents the authority to exclude their kids from classes if the topic of evolution comes up, Education Minister Dave Hancock said it won't change anything.

I have my own few thoughts about the act...

For one, if you take a look at the original act and this bill, this educational proposition sticks out like a sore thumb. It is one of the very few actual wholesale additions to the original act.

The original act contains nothing about parents, guardians, students or schools. Its only reference to education is for programs that promote nondiscrimination, which is rather topical.

So what does this addition give us?

Let's see the text of the thing:

Notice to parent or guardian
11.1(1) A board as defined in the School Act shall provide notice to a parent or guardian of a student where courses of study, educational programs or instructional materials, or instruction or exercises, prescribed under that Act include subject-matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation.

(2) Where a teacher or other person providing instruction, teaching a course of study or educational program or using the instructional materials referred to in subsection (1) receives a written request signed by a parent or guardian of a student that the student be excluded from the instruction, course of study, educational program or use of instructional materials, the teacher or other person shall in accordance with the request of the parent or guardian and without academic penalty permit the student

(a) to leave the classroom or place where the instruction, course of study or educational program is taking place or the instructional materials are being used for the duration of the part of the instruction, course of study or educational program, or the use of the instructional materials, that includes the subject-matter referred to in subsection (1), or

(b) to remain in the classroom or place without taking part in the instruction, course of study or educational program or using the instructional materials.

What the hell is this text doing here?

I mean, not that I can truly impute motives to the legislation, but it looks almost as though this was added into the legislation to "make up for" adding sexual orientation as a protected category. I mean, let's not mince words here: this addition "shields" exactly the sorts of families that would be opposed to the addition of sexual orientation as a protected class.

Another thing that disturbs me about this addition to the legislation is that apart from the categorization of what a [school] board entails, the language is flaky and non-specific. "subject-matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation" may seem to make intuitive sense to some, but to put this into a legal form invites trouble.

What counts as explicit? What counts as dealing explicitly with religion? Does it have to be a value judgment or a valuation of the truth claims of a religion, or is merely talking about religions in general enough to trip this clause? If Stelmach can look at it and think that evolution actually comes under this act, then it is not specific enough, and that is something Dave Hancock really needs to get through his head.

On top of this vague definition, this seems to imply that it is the school board's responsibility to somehow define this itself in order not to run afoul of the legislation, because it is the lack of notice that presents a violation.

On top of this, what kind of violation does it present? A human right violation. See the Enforcement section of the original act: these either get settled or they go all the way to a human rights panel - and those have had their share of weird decisions in this province.

The other hook in the worm here is the provision for no academic penalty. Now maybe you can make a case for skipping the sex education portion of something, but let's say you can make a case out of something in science. Evolution is one thing, sure, but geology and even in some cases Germ Theory can run afoul of certain religious precepts.

What that could do is hamstring our science for the sake of expediency. In a very similar manner to what happens with textbooks south of the border skipping evolution because of what the Texas school board happens to do, the hassle of having to alter course material, assignments, quizzes and tests to conform to the "no academic penalty" clause on a particular subject is, due to limited resources - on top of unwillingness to offend - going to lead to downplay and perhaps dropping of the material simply to avoid doubling up overworked resources as it is. I have already seen provincial course development where the evolution topic was made optional, though I am not privy to the reasoning behind it. Excuses for doing this will get easier.

Dave Hancock responded in one particular thread to harsh commentary:

It is not the Alberta Government' intention "to make education optional". Nothing in Bill 44, which merely seeks to enact a policy which is in effect with little fanfare or problem, that allows parents notification and involvement in religious education and education about sexuality. This is not about looking at every part of the curriculum through a religious lens and opting out. This is not about evolution or molecular biology, math or Shakespeare. This is about explicit instruction about religion. The CBC and other media have taken our Premier's comment about parental choice in education and made a whole new movie. I invite intelligent and informed discussion. If the section is problematic because it raises concern that other interpretations may be raised - fair comment - but to paint a picture of Alberta as moving into a neanderthal period is pure science fiction.

The latter part of his comment is good, but quite frankly, the substantive worries of the bill's interpretation do not seem to be addressed here.

He also takes a crack at responding in the large on his blog.

He even has a transcript of him speaking at the May 13th Second Reading of the bill here.

One thing that bothers me a little here is the way he conflates a parents' right to direct the education of their child, something he refers to both in reference to the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the reading:

Some people have argued that by putting these provisions in the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act, there is a significant change, that we're elevating them to the status of rights. Surprise. Parents have always had the fundamental right to direct the education of their child. That's recognized in the preamble of the School Act, Mr. Speaker, where it says that "parents have a right and a responsibility to make decisions respecting the education of their children."

...with elevation of this type of parental notification in public and charter schools from policy to law.

Now maybe I've missed something in that maybe having the opinions entered into readings about what the law means actually carries some legislative force such that people cannot wring legal advantage from the ambiguity of the law itself, but that seems unlikely.

...

A few other things that give me pause about the bill:

  • It seems that, as worded, someone could take a religion course, be excused for the entirety of it, and still get full credit
  • Notwithstanding the above, what kind of courses have only parts of them that deal explicitly with religion?

There are still a few more steps this bill has to go through on the way to becoming law. There's the Committee of the Whole, which would be a great spot to, say, clarify the likes of the unintentional effects the bill would have, etc.

I do hope someone in there has the sense to at least define the terms in the bill, if not throw out the section entirely...

Then it's on to Third Reading, Assembly Divided, etc.

I hope Bill 44 does not make it all the way through the process in its current mushy, worrisome form.

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