The search for common ground

Let me make two things clear up front: I am a Christian. I support Policy 5.45.

With those two facts out of the way, allow me to wade into the debate over the Burnaby school district's controversial antihomophobia policy.

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As I sit at the editor's desk for the summer, I'm reading all the letters we're getting about this policy with what has become a heavy heart. Not because there is disagreement about the policy, but because so many people on both sides of the debate are closing their minds to the possibility of finding common ground.

I read a slew of letters on the subject and find myself reading such words as malicious. Delusional. Bigoted. Intolerant. Ignorant. Although I understand why many writers feel so strongly, those words make me sad.

It's far too easy for us to label each other and, in so doing, distance ourselves from each other.

The left versus the right. The believer versus the non-believer. The Christian versus the nonChristian. The open-minded versus the bigoted. Wherever you sit in this debate, it's far too easy to just slap a label on those people who hold the opposing viewpoint. It makes it a lot easier for you to claim the moral high ground, because you don't have to wonder whether maybe those other people have a point: You've already labelled and dismissed them, so everything they say is irrelevant.

I get how hard it is to find common ground on this one. It's quite simply black and white to many people: It's right, or it's wrong, and there's no in between.

On the one hand, it's about protecting the human rights of a group of vulnerable people against whom discrimination, harassment and even violence are far too common in this supposedly enlightened society of ours.

On the other, it's about protecting the rights of a group of people who feel that very same society is encroaching on their rights to live according to their own moral and religious beliefs.

I am unequivocal on this point: Those parents who believe that homosexuality is a sin have a right to teach their children exactly that. (For the record, I disagree with them entirely, but that does not change my opinion about their right to hold that belief.)

They do not, however, have the right to expect that the public school system will do anything less than support human rights

- and do its best to protect all of its students, as it is bound to do by law.

And that's where the conflict comes in.

I can relate, to some degree, to those parents who feel that their right to raise their children according to their religious beliefs is being threatened.

As a person of faith, I understand how often you can feel "picked on" by society at large. It often seems to me that religion is the one thing the politically correct, tolerant left feels free to openly criticize.

I say that with all love for the politically correct, tolerant left, because it's a group I consider myself to be part of. But I do understand why many people feel that "the left" is marginalizing them and picking on them - and why this particular issue has touched such a nerve.

Not everyone who's opposing this policy is doing so because they're part of some hate-mongering, Christian-right conspiracy to keep gay people down. Not everyone who disagrees with this policy hates gay people.

Some opponents support the intent of the policy but disagree with its approach or its wording.

Some say it's unnecessary and there's no need for "special protection" for LGBTQ students.

I disagree. History has shown us repeatedly that, in many cases, a disadvantaged group needs "special status" in order to be made equal - with the hope that, eventually, society will progress to the point where that so-called "special" attention is no longer required because we really will consider all people to be equal, regardless of race, age, gender or sexual orientation.

We haven't hit equality on any of those fronts just yet. And when it comes to sexual orientation, the most recent of those arrivals on the human rights scene, we have even farther to go before "equality" is achieved.

Until there is real equality, gay students in our schools need support and protection - and that's exactly what this policy is giving them.

There is nothing in the policy that prevents parents from raising their children according to their own religious beliefs (and, indeed, there is a provision in it for parents to arrange for alternative instruction in certain sensitive areas).

So, although I understand those opponents who feel that their values are under attack, I urge them to approach this policy with an open mind and see that it is not only necessary, it's quite simply the right thing for the Burnaby school board to do.

At the same time, I urge those who support the policy to not simply turn their backs on those who disagree with them. Take the time to listen - and to hear. Find out where that opposition is coming from.

We fear that which we do not understand.

If we take time to try to understand each other, we can hopefully remove some of the fear that is causing people to lash out and label each other - rightly or wrongly.

The Burnaby school board has handled this issue with intelligence, sensitivity and respect. It's my hope that the rest of us can follow their example.

Julie MacLellan is the assistant editor of the Burnaby NOW. For an expanded version of this column, see her blog, In the Spotlight, at www.burnabynow.com.

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