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Catholic Church ramps up opposition to Minnesota anti-bullying bill

The Minnesota Catholic Conference calls the proposed Safe Schools legislation an “Orwellian nightmare” that would “usurp parental rights” and create “re-education camps.”

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has come out strongly against proposed anti-bullying legislation, linking it to the push to legalize same-sex marriage.
MinnPost file photo by Beth Hawkins

Calling it an extension of the push to legalize same-sex marriage in Minnesota, the Catholic Church is urging parishoners to call on lawmakers to reject an anti-bullying law.

According to a column in the Catholic Spirit, the official publication of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the proposed Safe Schools legislation is an “Orwellian nightmare” that would “usurp parental rights” and create “re-education camps.”

The column was written by Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which represents all Catholics dioceses in the state.

In addition to imposing burdensome legal mandates on parochial schools, the Roman Catholic Church also has argued in communications to parishioners that the law would unfairly discriminate against students who oppose same-sex marriage and other LGBT rights.

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“The bill’s proponents want to require private schools to follow the mandates of the law as well,” an action alert from the Minnesota Catholic Advocacy Network warned. “If a Catholic school refuses to comply, its students could lose their pupil aid, such as textbooks, school nurses, and transportation.” 

(While private schools in Minnesota do not receive per-pupil tuition dollars per se, they do receive many of the same ancillary funds as public schools.)

Separate, parallel bills creating and funding the Safe and Supportive Schools Act are in the final stages of going to the floors of the Senate and House of Representatives for a vote by the full membership. Passage roughly along party lines is expected.

At 37 words long, Minnesota’s current anti-bullying statute is frequently described as one of the weakest in the nation. It doesn’t define bullying and harassment or require districts to track or report complaints or mandate efforts toward creating healthy school climates.

The proposed measure is based on the work of a task force appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton in the fall of 2011, after the GOP-dominated Legislature rejected efforts to strengthen the law. A wave of student suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin School District had drawn wide attention to the bullying issue.

Last August, the task force submitted its recommendations, along with a plea for policymakers to act on them with “a strong sense of urgency.”

Among other best practices, the panel looked closely at the terms of a settlement among Anoka-Hennepin, a group of students who filed a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court here and the U.S. departments of Justice and Education. That agreement had been hailed as a potential national model.

The arguments raised by opponents of the Anoka-Hennepin settlement, most of them religious conservatives and proponents of conversion, or “pray away the gay” therapy, mirror those now being advanced by the archdiocese.

The Catholic Church has gone a step further, however, in linking the issue to same-sex marriage. The Archdiocese spent at least $650,000 in 2011 and 2012 campaigning to secure a constitutional ban on gay marriage; numerous dioceses and Catholic groups around the country donated hundreds of thousands of dollars more.      

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“The redefinition of marriage should not be seen as a stand-alone act,” the Catholic Spirit’s March column explained. “It is the harbinger of broader social change aimed at creating gender and sexual ‘freedom’ and breaking down the supposedly repressive social norm of heterosexual monogamy. And it is accompanied by other significant pieces of legislation working their way through Minnesota’s Legislature that should be resisted just as vigorously as same-sex ‘marriage.’”

Specific language in the bill protecting students from religious harassment and recognizing their constitutional right to free religious speech hasn’t satisfied critics, who have warned that schools will be forced to “teach same-sex marriage.” Both the recognition of same-sex marriage and the Safe Schools legislation will protect select groups of individuals at the cost of the rights and safety of others, the Archodiocesan communications argue.

“If marriage is redefined, the coercion of silence will enter the legal sphere, where real penalties will befall those so-called ‘bigots’ who ‘discriminate’ by clinging to the traditional definition of marriage,” the Catholic Spirit said. “The schools are the ideal place to foster this new regime of ‘tolerance,’ and forcefully suppress any bad thoughts or ‘hate’ speech that may emerge.”

The arguments are buttressed by testimony from Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten and from University of St. Thomas professor Michael Stokes Paulsen, described as a nationally recognized constitutional law expert.

Paulsen’s writings in opposition to abortion rights and Obamacare have been published by the Whitherspoon Institute, the same religious-right think tank that helped underwrite a widely criticized University of Texas study suggesting that life outcomes were dramatically worse for children whose parents had a same-sex relationship.    

Michael Bayly, director of Catholics for Marriage Equality,  is also the author of “Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective.” He disagrees with the archdiocese’s position, but said he understands it.

“I think they are frightened that their teaching on homosexuality is going to be seen as putting people in danger,” Bayly said. “And I think a good case can be made for that. They are in a bind.”

This wasn’t always the case, he pointed out. “There was a time in the mid- to late-’90s when the archdiocese was open to our group going in and working with teachers to do sensitivity training about the LGBT community and creating safe schools.”

By way of example, Bayly pointed to an entry on his blog, The Wild Reed, reprinting a 1998 Catholic Spirit column defending the archdiocese’s support for providing pastoral care for LGBT students and diversity training in Catholic schools:

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“Training offered to Catholic high school faculty and administrators teaches that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people deserve to be respected and treated with the dignity all God’s creatures have a right to expect, [archdiocesan Catholic Education and Formation Ministries (CEFM)] officials said, and to oppose efforts such as the GLBT initiatives is to oppose church teaching.

“Church teaching calls for respect for everyone,” [CEFM staffer Jane] Hilger said. “We are putting forward what Jesus taught — you respect everyone.”

A member of the Senate Education Committee, Andover Republican Branden Peterson supports same-sex marriage. But he opposes the Safe Schools bill for several reasons.

In his opinion, they include:  It’s too prescriptive to pass constitutional muster, and its chief funding mechanism is a special levy, which is problematic for private schools which cannot assess property owners. By mentioning things like economic justice, its language suggests an ideological agenda; and its cost — which he pegs at $52 million over the next biennium — would more than absorb the “fairly pedestrian” $52-per-pupil increase in the basic education formula proposed by the Senate. 

The Senate’s DFL leadership, he added, has proposed postponing the implementation of statewide teacher evaluations because it has not appropriated money to pay for the new assessment system. An early proponent of the performance reviews, Peterson would like to see them funded before new mandates are imposed.  

“Senator [Scott] Dibble” — a Minneapolis DFLer and the chief author of both the same-sex marriage bill and Safe Schools — “and I have obviously agreed on certain social justice issues,” Peterson said. “I happen to believe, as do many, that we ought to be treating all instances of bullying equally.”

For his part, Dibble expects two remaining Senate committees to endorse the anti-bullying policy legislation — funding is wrapped into the omnibus education finance bills — this week. Its House counterpart is awaiting a floor vote.

“All we are asking folks to do is to make sure a school setting is safe and allows a child to learn,” he said. “Why should it be so hard to make sure kids are not singled out for harassment?

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“The archdiocese has done nothing to sit down and problem-solve what would be best for kids,” Dibble concluded. “The truth is bullying is a problem we have to solve. It happens every day and it is a real problem.”