New education legislation proposed by the government of Jason Kenney, who became premier of Alberta in April, would allow schools to notify parents when their children join gay-straight student alliances. (Candace Elliott/Reuters)

When Lea Cheeseman came out as bisexual in the ninth grade, her junior high school didn’t have a club for LGBT students. So she started the Calgary school’s first gay-straight alliance.

The student-run clubs, found in hundreds of schools across North America, provide a venue for gay students and their allies to meet — often without the knowledge of their parents. Studies suggest they can help reduce bullying, improve health outcomes and lessen the risk of suicide.

But across Canada and beyond, they have also been lightning rods for controversy, touching as they do on divisive debates around education, parental consent, religious freedom and students’ rights.

Now the United Conservative government of new Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, promoted by some on the Canadian right as a model for the nation, has passed legislation that gay rights activists say will roll back protections for the groups.

The education law, which passed late Friday after a combative 40-hour debate, eliminates a requirement that schools form clubs “immediately” when asked by students, and drops an explicit ban on notifying their parents.

Provincial Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has said that those provisions might have been well intentioned but were “unnecessary to begin with.” The aim of the new law, LaGrange said, “is to balance the need that, at times, students have around the way that they want to create their organization, but also to allow for occasions where there is a need for parents to be involved as well.”

Cheeseman, now 19, and others say gay-straight alliances are under assault in Alberta. Thousands have taken to the streets of Edmonton and other communities to protest.

“The end result of the changes will be that students will not feel safe,” Cheeseman said.

The education law, which encompasses school policy, planning and funding, is one in a series of measures advanced by the United Conservatives to reverse the liberal policies of their New Democratic predecessors in Alberta, while also pushing back against the Liberal Party of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa.

In their first months in office, the United Conservatives have repealed a consumer carbon tax, cut the minimum wage for teenagers and passed legislation to slash corporate taxes.

While federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer struggles to connect with voters ahead of the federal election this fall, and Progressive Conservative Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s popularity plummets amid unpopular budget cuts and scandal, conservatives are pointing to Kenney, 51, as a model for effective leadership.

The former federal cabinet minister once promised not to legislate on “divisive social issues.” But in changing the rules on gay-straight student alliances (GSAs), his government is taking on one of the most divisive.

In 2015, Alberta’s Progressive Conservative government required school officials to approve the clubs in every school, public or private, where a student requested one.

Supporters of the clubs cheered the move — but their celebrations were short-lived.

“School administrators were dragging their feet on establishing GSAs, encouraging students to call them something else or suggesting to them that if they formed or joined GSAs, they would tell their parents,” said former education lawyer Rakhi Pancholi, a New Democratic Party lawmaker.

The New Democratic Party approved legislation in 2017 to close those loopholes. Bill 24 required schools to help students establish the clubs “immediately,” and made it illegal for officials to disclose student participation to parents, except when students were at risk of harm. Failure to comply could cost a school its funding.

Zachery Yeung, 18, was president of the Pride Club at his Edmonton high school last school year. Before Bill 24, he said, friends were “on the fence” about joining a gay-straight alliance, because they feared they would be outed.

“They were more comfortable after the changes,” he said.

Not everyone was pleased. Some faith-based schools said the legislation infringed upon their religious freedom. Some parents said they had the right to know of their children’s participation.

The Justice Center for Constitutional Freedoms sought an injunction on behalf of dozens of faith-based schools and parents until the law’s constitutionality could be determined. In filings, the group described the clubs as “secret spaces” that exposed students to sexually explicit material, caused “irreparable harm” and violated parental rights.

Justice Johnna Kubik denied the request. In her decision, she wrote that an injunction would send LGBT students the message that “their diverse identities are less worthy of protection,” which would be “considerably more harmful than temporarily limiting a parent’s right to know and make decisions about their child’s involvement in a GSA.”

Kenney said in March that he supported allowing schools to notify parents if their children joined a GSA. After he was elected premier in April, students at nearly 90 Alberta schools walked out in protest.

His government’s education law repeals Bill 24. There will be no deadline for school administrators to grant a student’s request to establish a club, and students will no longer be assured the right to use words such as “gay” and “queer” in the names of their clubs.

The law also eliminates language that explicitly prohibited teachers from disclosing a student’s participation to his or her parents. Instead, schools are now required to follow other laws, which allow school club participation to be disclosed if it would not be an “unreasonable invasion” of privacy, to minimize the risk of harm to a student or to aid law enforcement investigations.

Critics say that the changes will allow schools to delay club formation indefinitely and that relying on current privacy legislation leaves too much open to the interpretation of teachers. What, for example, is an “unreasonable invasion” of privacy?

“Teachers are not legal experts,” said Greg Jeffery, who until July 1 was president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. “So we appreciated the clarity of ‘You cannot disclose.’ ”

“Taking out the word ‘immediately’ allows for forming a GSA to be put off with the hopes that students lose interest,” he said.

LaGrange did not respond to questions about whether there would be a deadline for a school to form a gay-straight alliance before the government stepped in. A spokesman said the government opposes “mandatory parental notification of any student’s involvement in an inclusion group, including GSAs.”

“Alberta will have the most comprehensive statutory protections for LGBTQ2S+ students in Canada,” spokesman Colin Aitchison wrote in an email. He said the government “trusts educators to navigate these situations and do what is in the best interest of kids.”

Kristopher Wells, a professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton who studies sexual and gender minority youth and health, said the government is “softening and obscuring the language” around gay-straight alliances, “creating confusion and ambiguity.”

The clubs represent “one of the most promising health interventions that we’ve seen in a long, long time in schools,” he said, and it would be a mistake to make it more difficult for students to join them.

“We’d expect to see something like this in Alabama, not Alberta in 2019.”