J. Reuben Clark Law Society

Seek to Understand Before Being Understood: Richard Low's Experience of Finding Common Ground about Religious Freedom in the Public Square

Editor’s Note: Richard Low is an attorney and a member of the Law Society’s Canada Edmonton Chapter. He shared the following experience at the Law Society’ s annual Canadian Conference in Banff on October 28, 2016.  The newsletter thanks Brother Low for his contribution.

Earlier this year, I was approached by a group of concerned parents in our city, regarding a proposed school board policy on the topic of sexual orientation and gender identity. This policy had only recently been disclosed by the school board, yet members of the board  seemed quite anxious to pass it without public consultation or debate. The draft policy caused a lot of concern among faith-based parents, because even though it was supposed to be an anti-bullying policy, it only had application to those students who identified as LGBTQ and not to other religious or racial minorities. The policy went further, allowing school personnel to advise students struggling with sexual orientation or gender identity issues without parental consent or involvement. Other provisions relating to gender neutral washroom facilities and the formation of “gay-straight” alliance clubs were also addressed. The board’s time line for the passage of this policy was very tight. I became involved as a pro bono legal adviser for this parents’ group.

We first asked elected board members to allow parental input before finalization of the policy. The parents’ group was concerned that all students were not being treated the same, and that the policy eroded parental and religious rights. Our efforts fell on deaf ears, and the draft policy went forward to the first reading before the board. The school board’s executive director and the most senior member of the board were working together towards the passage of this sexual orientation policy as their “personal legacy.”

Upon my review of the applicable statutes governing school board policies, it was clear that the only recourse open to our group was to force a public meeting on the policy by way of petition. We accomplished this within a few short weeks by teaming up with many faith communities in our city. The petition was presented, and the public meeting was scheduled, with the purpose (as outlined in the statute) of electing four parental representatives to form a committee, who would then work together with two school board appointees to make recommendations on the proposed policy. The battle lines were drawn and the public rhetoric began. Opposing voices in the community felt their rights were being threatened by this process, and they rallied their troops to attend the meeting to vote against the formation of the committee, and then, if the committee was organized, to try and get their own people elected. Church and other faith-based people also came out in force to the meeting, due to the efforts of our parents’ group, resulting in several hundred people attending the meeting.

At the meeting, a preliminary motion to refuse to accept the petition was defeated, so the process of electing the four committee members began. A number of candidates were put forward by both sides. An Evangelical minister, an Evangelical woman, an LDS woman, and I were the four nominees from the parents’ group. The opponents of the process also put forward their four nominees. The results of the vote were announced, and all four of the people from our parents’ group were elected. The school board’s executive director and the most senior member of the board were appointed as the school board’s nominees. There was a great amount of hostility towards our group from our opponents and the two new nominees from the board.

Committee meetings were scheduled in a week, and I knew something had to change. I knew that under the legislation, the committee could only make “recommendations” to the school board, which the board could legally ignore, and with the current contentious climate prevailing on this issue, I felt that is exactly what was going to happen. The contentious public meeting also now created the perception that there was a huge rift between religious people and LGBTQ people in our city. I went prayerfully to the temple and asked for direction as to how to approach the first committee meeting. The direct answer I got was “listen to them” (referring to the two board appointees who had authored the policy).

I conferred with the other three parent members of the newly formed committee and suggested that at the first meeting, rather than getting into actual policy wording, that we simply listen to their concerns. They agreed as did the two board appointees, so at the first meeting we listened to each other. After we scheduled another meeting, I challenged all to consider what policy wording changes might be made that would take into account the concerns of  both sides but would still allow the goals of the policy to be accomplished. At the next meeting, we identified areas of possible wording changes and agreed on policy revisions that took into account the concerns of the parents, but still also respected the objective of protecting LGBTQ students from discrimination, bullying, and marginalization. The revised policy was unanimously endorsed by all six of the committee members, including the two appointed board members! We had accomplished what many thought would be impossible! We then presented our recommendations to the board, and they were largely accepted. At the final school board meeting regarding the policy, there was a spirit of unification and healing, as both sides felt that their interests had been taken into account in the process.

The whole experience taught me that the phrase “Seek to understand before being understood” was perhaps nowhere more applicable than in the context of the oftimes divisive debate between people of faith and people wanting to protect, expand, or assert the rights of the  LGBTQ community. While these competing rights might never be totally aligned, I learned that by listening to the real concerns and issues, we are more likely to find common ground in the public square.   

By Richard Low


Posted: November 17, 2016