Bill 24 legal challenge heard by Court of Appeal in Calgary today

The Justice Centre will be at the Court of Appeal of Alberta in Calgary today, to defend the constitutional rights and freedoms of parents and independent schools who are challenging Alberta’s Bill 24.  This hearing will be held in Courtroom 1 and commences at 10:00 a.m. on Monday, December 3, 2018.

This appeal asks the court to stay provisions of Bill 24, passed by the Alberta Legislature in November 2017, on the basis that they violate the rights of students, parents and schools protected by section 2(a), 2(b), 2(d) and 7 rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the “Charter”) and the Alberta Bill of Rights.  The court application also seeks an injunction staying the operation of the challenged provisions until the Court rules on their constitutionality.

On June 20, 2018, the lower court had dismissed the application to stay provisions of Bill 24. The Applicants appealed that decision to the Alberta Court of Appeal, which agreed to hear the matter as a fast track appeal.

Bill 24 amends the School Act to make it illegal for the school principal to notify parents about their child’s involvement in student organizations, including Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), or “activities” established under section 16.1 of the School Act.

Prior to the passage of Bill 24, principals and teachers had discretion to withhold information from parents on a case-by-case basis.  In rare and unusual cases where there was a risk that providing parents with information would result in a risk of abuse or other harm to a student, schools had the legal authority to withhold information from parents.  Bill 24 removes this discretion from teachers and principals, and replaces it with a blanket prohibition that prevents informing all parents, without exception, about their children’s involvement in GSAs and GSA-related activities.

Bill 24 makes no distinction between a five-year-old in Kindergarten who is experiencing gender identity confusion, and a seventeen-year-old in Grade 12 who does not wish to discuss sexuality with his parents.  In both cases, teachers are legally barred from providing any information to parents about GSAs or GSA-related activities.  The Alberta government’s GSA Network website welcomes queries from children, and asks whether they are in elementary school or high school.

The applicants also include more than ten individual parents who are concerned about Bill 24’s provisions that prevent parental knowledge about their children as young as five years old about their involvement in GSAs and GSA-related activities. Creating no-go zones for parental awareness jeopardizes the safety of Alberta’s children, especially the most vulnerable, and undermines parents’ ability to support and protect their own children.

The applicants also include more than two dozen Jewish, Christian, and Sikh private schools. Bill 24 threatens faith-based schools by attacking the freedom of these schools to create safe and welcoming learning environments while also respecting their unique religious characters, and by preventing schools from being open and transparent with parents.

Bill 24 further requires principals to set up a GSA or facilitate a GSA-related activity “immediately” (at the request of one student) without consulting the school board or parents, and without considering whether the GSA and GSA-related activities are compatible with the school’s nature, character and values.

In September of 2018, Deputy Minister Curtis Clark threatened religious schools with defunding and loss of accreditation if they do not remove religious content from their “Safe and Caring” school policies.

During the week of October 1-5, several schools whose Safe and Caring policies had been deemed non-compliant by the Alberta Education “Safe and Caring Team” requested clarification (123) as to how the religious views expressed in their policies could be found to violate “diversity” or be “unwelcoming, uncaring and/or disrespectful”. The October correspondence shows the Alberta government refusing to provide any explanation as to how, for example, “diversity” is threatened by a school’s policy that reflects the school’s belief in the Bible as truth.  The October correspondence shows Alberta Education justifying its ban on faith references in school policies solely on the basis of “the opinion of the Minister.”

On November 14, 2018, the Minister of Education issued Ministerial Orders to 28 private schools, including schools of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith, demanding that they replace their own religiously-informed Safe and Caring Policies and replace them with policies created by Alberta Education, devoid of respect for their religious beliefs or parents’ rights and responsibilities concerning their own children.  In issuing the Ministerial Orders, Minister Eggen threatened to take punitive action against any schools that do not completely comply with his Ministerial Orders, including defunding such schools for the 2019-2020 school year.