Friday, April 04, 2014

Minnesota Catholics, LGBT Students, and the Ongoing Work of Creating Safe and Supportive Schools

UPDATED: April 9, 2014

Yes, it feels a little like history repeating.

When I was in Australia around this time eight years ago I reported "good news from Minnesota": the state legislature had adjourned without approving a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have barred any form of legal recognition for same-sex couples and their families. The Minnesota Conference of Catholic Bishops had lobbied hard for the proposed amendment, with John C. Nienstedt, then Bishop of New Ulm, very much leading the charge. Of course, most people have forgotten this victory, overshadowed as it was five years later when a similar amendment passed the legislature and was placed on the November 2012 ballot. Nienstedt, now Archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis, made the passing of the so-called "marriage amendment" very much a personal crusade. After almost two years of often contentious debate (see, for example, here, here, here, here and here) the "marriage amendment" was rejected by the citizens of Minnesota. I was honoured to do my bit in helping defeat this amendment, both as executive coordinator of Catholics for Marriage Equality MN and as editor of The Progressive Catholic Voice.

So where and how is "history repeating"?

Well, once again I'm in Australia and reporting good news from Minnesota. This time, however, is not about marriage equality legislation, which, I should note, was swiftly passed (see here and here) soon after the defeat of the 'marriage amendment.' Rather, the good news I share today is about the Safe and Supportive Schools bill: Yes, it has been passed by both the Minnesota Senate and House!

"Doing what is right for our kids"

Local journalist Andy Birkey has been providing excellent coverage of the progress of the bill, the first version of which appeared in 2009. In his most recent piece for, Andy writes:

The bill is a comprehensive plan to tackle bullying in Minnesota’s public schools. It provides a clear definition of bullying, protects all students while listing 19 categories of students often singled out for bullying, creates a school climate center and council to provide up-to-date anti-bullying research to school districts, and focuses on bullying prevention as opposed to punishment.

. . . “No child in Minnesota should have to choose on a daily basis between feeling safe and going to school, and with passage of this bill, they no longer have to,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, the lead author of the bill. “Our students will now be able to feel supported, our teachers and administrators will have the tools and training they need to address bullying, and our parents will not have to worry about the safety of their kids in schools.”

He added, “Misinformation perpetuated about the bill is unfortunate. This has always been about doing what is right for our kids. No child in Minnesota should be bullied, and every student is going to be protected thanks to the Safe and Supportive Schools Act.”

Following are excerpts from the Star Tribune report on yesterday's passage at the Minnesota State Capitol of what's been called the "anti-bullying bill."

An anti-bullying policy considered one of the weakest in the country was scrapped by the Minnesota Senate on Thursday in favor of more stringent requirements that would begin to crack down on practices that have tormented some students to the point of suicide.

Every school district would be expected to develop and enforce plans to reduce bullying and would have to make regular progress reports to the state. The state itself would be required to develop a model plan.

Wearing a backward Minnesota Gophers cap and clutching a “Safe Schools” sign to her chest, Elise Coffin, 17, had her eyes glued to a telecast just outside the Senate chambers as members prepared to vote.

“I feel like there’s still thousands of kids out there that don’t have a voice and can’t speak up for themselves,” said Coffin, a Duluth East High School senior who is gay and who has been bullied. “If we can get a voice from legislators, it’s going to mean a lot more.”

Coffin laughed at opponents’ suggestion that the bill provides special treatment for gay and lesbian students. “People need to take a reality check and go through what it’s like to be an out kid in high school,” she said. “Special privilege? No. I think we’re finally going to be treated like we deserve, instead of second-class citizens.”

Strengthening the anti-bullying law has been a decade-long goal of gay rights activists and others concerned about bullying that affects a broad spectrum of students perceived as different. But the pushback from opponents has been strong.

Much of the lobbying energy behind the bill has been courtesy of OutFront Minnesota, the state’s chief gay rights group and a driving force behind last year’s successful effort to legalize gay marriage in Minnesota. The anti-bullying bill pushes some of the same cultural hot buttons as that debate, with religious and socially conservative groups expressing worry that students could get labeled bullies for expressing views learned from their parents at a church.

. . . When the bill passed 36-31, tearful supporters erupted in cheers after a debate that had spanned five hours. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, was greeted with back slaps and hugs as he pumped his fists in the air.

“It doesn’t matter for a kid based on where they live, they should be able to expect to go to school feeling safe,” Dibble said.

A number of provisions in earlier versions came out. The bill no longer requires schools to keep data and report it. They won’t be subject to mandatory training of volunteers. Districts will not have to adopt the state’s model policy unless they decline to devise one of their own.

The bill defines bullying behavior in part as behavior, words or images that could interfere with a safe, supportive learning environment; that instill fear or intimidation, or that have a detrimental effect on the physical, social or emotional health of a student. It also addresses cyberbullying.

Public charter schools would be expected to follow the bill’s requirements, but private and home schools would not.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said his chamber, which approved similar legislation last year, is likely to quickly send the bill to Gov. Mark Dayton, who is expected to sign it.

“I support the stronger protections in the anti-bullying bill . . . to provide local school districts with the guidance and support they need to make it very clear that bullying will not be allowed in our schools,” Dayton said.

A range of Catholic perspectives and voices

It should be noted that, thanks to intense lobbying by the Minnesota Catholic Conference of Bishops, Catholic schools will be exempt from the anti-bullying policies that will be enacted when the bill becomes law. Yet even despite this exception, the conference still lobbied hard to defeat the bill.

In February, my friend Mary Beth Stein had a letter-to-the-editor published in the Star Tribune. In this letter Mary Beth refutes the bishops' rationale for their anti-gay activism and explains how the Minnesota Safe and Supportive Schools bill is, in fact, in keeping with Catholic values.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference rejects the Safe and Supportive Schools bill, expressing concern that the bill is part of a larger agenda to normalize same-sex attraction. These suspicions reflect the attitude of some of the ordained Church leaders but not the heart and soul of Catholics in the pews. As was demonstrated in the high Catholic percentage who voted against the marriage amendment, we already accept same-sex attraction as normal. Everyone is created by God; who are we to judge? Rather than judge we are called to cherish.

The real issue at hand is protecting students. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students are frequent targets of bullying. The concern for all Catholics, indeed all Minnesotans, is to protect these and other vulnerable students from harm. What could be more in keeping with Catholic values?

The Twin Cities-based Council of the Baptized also critiqued the bishops' attempts to both exempt Catholic schools from the Safe and Supportive Schools bill and prevent the bill from passing in any form that specifically identified lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students as a group prone to being bullied. In February of this year the Council of the Baptized published "Catholic Support for Anti-Bullying Legislation Without Exemption for Private Schools," a position paper researched and written by Council members Daniel DeWan, Lisa Vanderlinden and Patty Thorsen.

The position paper states in part:

For the Catholic [bishops] to be asking for an exemption, they are, in essence, asking for the right to teach students in a way that is intimidating, threatening and abusive. This would be wholly contrary to what [Minnesota Catholic Conference spokesperson] Jason Adkins claims is the policy in Catholic schools “to treat every child as someone created in the image and likeness of God...” (MinnPost, April 24, 2013). Therefore, it would seem that Catholic schools are already complying with the legislation except for the minor burden of reporting incidents to the Department of Education.

The Council of the Baptized fully supports the Minnesota Legislature’s efforts to combat bullying in schools throughout the state with legislation that will define bullying clearly, and enumerates the students who are most likely to be bullied or harassed. Further, the Council believes that the requirements of the proposed legislation should apply to all schools without exemptions for private and non-public schools.

The Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR) also questioned the bishops' actions, asking:

Why is the Minnesota Catholic Conference of Bishops one of the biggest opponents to this bill when the bill already exempts private schools?

They say that if the bill becomes law Catholics in the public schools might be accused of bullying when expressing their beliefs about homosexuality. But bullying is defined as negative, aggressive, repeated behavior – not the same as sharing one's beliefs.

Do you think the reason given for opposing the bill outweighs the suffering and violence of bullying to kids beginning to discover their sexual identity? And what about those students being bullied because of race, ethnicity, economic status, disabilities, and other characteristics enumerated in the bill? Passing this bill will protect all students.

Well, thankfully the bill has passed and will soon be law. Many young people's lives will be made better and safer as a result. It saddens me, however, that, once again, the Catholic hierarchy is on the wrong side of history when it comes to an issue involving LGBT people.

I'm heartened, though, by the fact that teachers and administrators in many Catholic schools are doing what they can to support students who have either come out as LGBT or who are questioning their sexual orientation and/or gender.

I also feel very honoured to have been given, eight years ago, the opportunity as executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) to compile and edit a book that, to this day, remains the only text available offering strategies and resources for Catholic educators to create safe environments for LGBT students.

In their 2007 review of Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective, Kristin L. Gunckel and Adam J. Greteman write:

Creating Safe Environments provides a much-needed tool to help Catholic schools address the issue of sexuality and the needs of LGBT students within the Catholic educational system. It illustrates the complex and political nature of the situation while asking that Catholic educators address this sensitive topic not solely from doctrine or out of pity, but with an emphasis on social justice and the pastoral need to care for all students. Bayly challenges those who take part in the training to not simply tolerate LGBT students, but to embrace them for their differences and recognize their unique gifts and existence.

Bayly traverses the complicated terrain by contrasting the theological issues with the reality that LGBT students face increased persecution and higher suicide rates than their heterosexual peers. He calls for the Catholic community to take action to embrace its LGBT students and create a safe environment in which they can learn and develop. He does this through various means including an examination of the cultural context in which the Bible was written and the passages often used to condemn homosexuality. Bayly also provides an honest look at the various statements that have emerged from the documents issued by the U.S. Catholic Bishops, which at times have not been the most positive toward LGBT peoples, but which he recognizes as important in the on-going discussion. Finally, Bayly addresses the reality that the Catholic Church is constantly changing, just at a slower pace than other institutions. The pastoral move to discuss sexuality outside of Catholic doctrine is a positive advancement. While Bayly’s guide may not suffice for all schools, it provides useful guidance on what the issues are and how the Catholic school community can and should recognize the existence and needs of its LGBT students.

Writing in the Canadian Journal of Education, Gerald Walton notes:

Given religiously-based backlash against LGBT visibility in society and legal rights that are equal to, but do not supercede those of heterosexuals (such as so-called “gay marriage” in Canada), Bayly’s book is a useful, essential, and comprehensive manual that addresses issues that are widely perceived as difficult and controversial. For those who are unconvinced, the bottom line is simple: all students deserve to learn in schools that are free of bigotry and violence. Bayly’s book is an excellent step in that direction.

I look forward to the day when members of the Catholic hierarchy make the decision to journey in the direction that both the Minnesota Safe and Supportive Schools Act and my book are leading. I look forward to the day when a book entitled Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective is no longer needed; when the strategies and resources such a book provides are simply a given in our Catholic schools.

May that day come soon.

Minnesota House Passes Anti-Bullying Bill; Dayton to Sign Into Law Today – Mike Cronin (Star Tribune, April 9, 2014).
Republicans Semi-Privately Complain of LGBT-Inclusion in Safe Schools Bill – Andy Birkey (, April 7, 2014).
Special Report: The Right’s 5-year Anti-LGBT Campaign to Stop Safe Schools – Andy Birkey (, April 24, 2014).

Related Off-site Links:
Safe Schools Bill Passes Minnesota Senate – Andy Birkey (, April 4, 2014).
Bullying Crackdown Passes Minnesota Senate – Patrick Condon and Abby Simons (Star Tribune, April 4, 2014).
Safe Schools Bill Passes Senate Education Committee – Andy Birkey (, March 12, 2014).
Emotions Flare At Anti-Bullying Bill Hearing – Esme Murphy (CBS Minnesota, March 11, 2014).
Five Falsehoods the Right is Telling About the Minnesota Anti-Bullying Bill – Andy Birkey (, March 5, 2014).
Opponents to Safe Schools Bill Testify, But Arguments Are Losing Steam – Beth Hawkins (MinnPost, March 12, 2014).
Catholic Hierarchy's Rhetoric Does Not Reflect Changes to Safe and Supportive Schools Act – Rep. Jim Davnie (MinnPost, April 26, 2013).
How to Determine If Your Religious Liberty Is Being Threatened in Just 10 Quick Questions – Rev. Emily C. Heath (HuffPost Religion, September 5, 2012).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Confronting Classroom Homophobia
"A Courageous Document"
"A Valiant Effort"
"A Useful, Essential, and Comprehensive Manual"
CPCSM and the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis: Part 3 – Archdiocese Defends CPCSM's Efforts on Behalf of Gay Students
CPCSM and the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis: Part 4 – More on the Archdiocese's Efforts to Defend the Addressing of Gay Issues in Catholic High Schools
For the Record

1 comment:

William D. Lindsey said...

Kudos to Michael for his hard work for years now, which has significantly contributed to this achievement. And the opposite of kudos to the Minnesota Catholic bishops, who opposed this anti-bullying bill and got an exemption from it for Catholic schools.