France Gay Pride
A giant rainbow flag is unfurled at the Toulouse Gay Pride Parade in Toulouse, France,last June. Guillaume Paumier

French President Francois Hollande has stepped into a heated debate on the role Catholic schools will play in shaping children’s views regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage in the country.

France may become the wealthiest, most powerful nation to legalize gay marriage this year, when a bill approved by the Socialist administration heads to parliament for debate this month. But the Catholic Church has taken a stance against the bill, and now Catholic schools -- along with their students -- have become embroiled in the controversy.

It began when Eric Labarre, secretary-general of the national Catholic school system, sent a letter in early December urging educators to discuss same-sex marriage with students in class.

“Every primary and secondary school should take the appropriate steps to ensure everyone has the freedom to make an informed decision over the choices the government is considering today,” said the letter, according to France24.

Education Minister Vincent Peillon sent a quick response, arguing that discussing gay marriage in Catholic classrooms would not be appropriate.

“I have the deepest respect for the Catholic school system. But, the institution, which is under contract with the state, must respect the principle that everyone has the right to a neutral and free thought,” he wrote on Dec. 4, implying that Catholic teachers might use their classrooms to influence students against the idea of gay marriage.

“We must never forget that we are dealing with young people and that attempted suicides are five times higher among teenagers who realize they are homosexual than others.”

On Monday, Hollande publicly agreed with Peillon and emphasized the importance of separating the church from state affairs.

“Secularism is a Republican value,” said the president to France24. “We have to make sure that all ways of thinking are respected and that all religions can be practiced. But, we also have to [respect] the fact that we all live in the same place, and that the state, as well as both private and public educational institutions, adheres to a principle called neutrality.”

Catholicism is the majority religion in France, but about 60 percent of the country’s citizens support the idea of gay marriage. The same-sex union legalization bill heading to parliament this month is expected to pass -- no matter what Catholic school-teachers tell their students.

Interestingly, the new year brought one more small indication that 2013 might be a good year for France’s gay population: The very first child to be born in the country this year was a boy named Sacha, whose mother, identified only as Maude, is a lesbian who hopes to marry her partner, Delphine, as soon as it becomes legal.

Le premier bébé was born between midnight and 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, weighing in at 6 pounds and 7 ounces. Whether his parents can sanctify their union will be up to the French legislature, and rights activists can only hope that Sacha’s fortuitously timed arrival will herald a new era of acceptance for France’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered population.