Rule on Christianity For Faculty, Trustees Splits Atlanta School

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A longtime policy requiring that its faculty and board members be Christian has caused a rift at the respected Westminster Schools in Atlanta.

Critics argue that the rule is an outdated barrier to diversity, while its defenders believe it is central to the fundamental religious mission of the independent, nondenominational school.

Opponents of the policy, including several members of the school's board of trustees who pressed the issue, have apparently lost for now. The board in December defeated a proposal to change the requirement.

But those who would like to open up the board and the school's faculty to non-Christians are vowing to fight on.

"I don't know what the next step is, but I'm going to continue to speak my mind on this matter," James C. Kennedy, the board member who proposed changing the policy, said in an interview late last month.

The issue has received an extensive and sometimes acrimonious public airing in
the city since an article on the dispute appeared last month in The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution. Mr. Kennedy heads the newspapers' parent company.

Many church-affiliated schools in the United States, including many Roman Catholic schools, have religious requirements for key administrators and often for teachers. But it is unusual for an independent school to have such restrictions, private-school observers say, especially when the student enrollment comes from a variety of religious backgrounds.

Westminster, which occupies a 180-acre campus in the wealthy northwest section of Atlanta, serves some 1,700 day students in grades K-12. Tuition for grades 6-12 is $7,315 this year.

The school has taught two generations of Atlanta's most academically able youths. It is one of the best-regarded private schools in the city, with a reputation that extends throughout the South. In the class of 1989, every student took an Advanced Placement test during one of the three upper years, the school said in one of its announcements.

While the vast majority of Westminster students are Christian, local observers estimate that 10 percent to 15 percent of the students, most of them Jewish, are non-Christian.

The school would not confirm these figures.

'A Real Conflict'

While Westminster has embraced a significant degree of religious diversity in its student body, it has steadfastly refused to alter its 40-year-old requirement that faculty members and trustees profess a belief in Jesus.

The school traces its origins to the North Avenue Presbyterian School in Atlanta, but its trustees made it nondenominational in 1953. School policy states that it is "dedicated to the precepts of the Christian faith."

Critics of the policy on faculty and trustee appointments do not suggest that Westminster should veer from its basic Christian foundation. But they argue that the rule prevents the school from hiring good non-Christian teachers, and, more importantly, that it sends a subtle message reinforcing biases against non-Christians that are still common in the city.

"The school prides itself on encouraging diversity in the student population, and yet with this policy they discourage that same diversity in the teaching, administering, and trustee positions," said Mr. Kennedy, who is chairman and chief executive officer of Cox Enterprises Inc., which owns the Journal and Constitution.

"I think that's a real conflict," he said.

Others who oppose the policy contend that it fosters a sense of religious elitism among Westminster graduates, many of whom have gone on to leading business and civic positions.

"Westminster is not just another Christian school," said Stuart Lewengrub, director of the Southeast regional office of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. "It is probably the finest preparatory school in the South."

"Because of that," he argued, "it takes on a special character.

"So many graduates of Westminster will become leaders," Mr. Lewengrub added, "that for them to experience mentors and authority figures with the idea that only Christians can serve in these roles is neither healthy nor realistic."

"I think there is an unspoken belief [among defenders of the policy] that Christians really are better people," he said.

The critics also point out that Atlanta's other leading independent religious schools have a variety of faiths represented on their faculties and governing boards.

For instance, the Marist School, an independent Roman Catholic high school in the city, has two Jewish teachers and plans to institute a lay board that will include non-Catholics, according to Brother Paul J. Leonarczyk, the headmaster.

Westminster's Christian-only hiring policy does not appear to violate federal or state law, which generally allows churches and religious institutions to hire on the basis of religion.

The National Association of Independent Schools, of which Westminster is a member, requires its members to sign a statement that they do not discriminate in admissions or employment based on race or religion ''in violation of existing state or federal law or regulations."

But nais officials say Westminster meets that test because it does not violate the law and is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which exempts church-related schools from its religious-discrimination clause.

"The important thing to keep in mind is the independence of independent schools," said Margaret Goldsborough, a spokesman for the nais "They are free to define their mission."

'An Internal Issue'

Several top Westminster officials declined to discuss the policy, including the Rev. Frank Harrington, the board chairman, who did not return phone calls, and William Clarkson, the incoming president of the school.

Richard Lindeman, director of public relations for the school, said: "We are standing by the established policy. It's an internal issue, and we are not making any further comment."

Disagreements between trustees of a private school would normally remain behind closed doors, but last month the Atlanta newspapers reported on the controversy in a lengthy article that many believe was instigated by Mr. Kennedy.

In the article, Mr. Harrington was quoted as defending the exclusionary policy by saying that the school's leaders "are exercising our rights under the First Amendment to determine who we are, and we are a Christian prep school."

An editorial by the Constitution argued that the policy sent a contrael10ldictory message that diversity in the student enrollment was acceptable, but that a Jewish graduate would be "unwelcome to return to the alma mater to teach or to lead."

"To insist on barring non-Christians bespeaks a suspiciousness, almost a narrowness of spirit," the newspaper said.

School officials are believed to be upset that the issue has become one of public debate, with a stream of letters continuing to be published by the Atlanta papers.

"This is not the type of institution that enjoys having its dirty laundry aired in public," said Bradley Block, the valedictorian of the Westminster class of 1980, who is now a lawyer in Chicago.

Not a 'Christian-Jewish Issue'

Mr. Block, who is Jewish, made his own mark during his valedictory address when he criticized the hiring policy at Westminster. Before that, few people even knew of the policy, he said in an interview.

Mr. Block also said he once considered teaching at the school, but that he knew the hiring policy would prevent it.

"It limits the applicant pool for teachers, and anytime you limit your pool, you are excluding some people who are qualified," Mr. Block said. "For a school that prides itself on its academics and open-mindedness, it's unfortunate" to maintain the exclusionary policy.

The current tensions surrounding the issue, meanwhile, have led to attacks on school officials that even some critics like Mr. Kennedy say are unjustified.

The dissident trustee expressed concern that some defenders of the policy were being viewed as anti-Se8mitic. Some opponents are calling Westminster's current president, Donn Gaebelein, "and telling him he's worse than Hitler," Mr. Kennedy said.

"He's a fine educator, and I hate to see that happening," the trustee said.

Welch Suggs, the editor of the student newspaper, said the controversy should not be seen as a "Christian-Jewish issue," because anti-Semitism is not a problem at the school.

But Mr. Suggs has written an editorial against the religion policy, contending that it has led the school toward "a particularly bigoted, self-serving way of seeing the world."

"The school needs to be more conscious" of other faiths, the Westminster senior added in an interview. "I am generally annoyed at the amount of Christianity I have to put up with around here."

Vol. 10, Issue 33

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