School Choice & Charters

A Clear Stand

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 16, 2006 12 min read
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Not long ago, if a student came out as gay at a religious school that viewed homosexual acts as sinful, the school could feel free to expel the student without a fuss. The same went for denying admission to children of parents who were living in same-sex partnerships.

Not anymore.

As homosexuality has become one of the fiercest battlefronts in the “culture wars,” religious schools have found it harder to exclude gays or their children without lawsuits or unwanted coverage in the news media, even though court precedents favor their right to take such action. An administrator’s decision to include or exclude a student who is gay, or has a gay parent, also can create a stir within a school community, because of the diversity of views on homosexuality among people even of the same religious faith.

In light of increased attention to opposing views on the issue, some administrators are spelling out their schools’ positions more explicitly than would once have been the case. That’s true both for schools that believe it goes against their religious principles to enroll homosexual students or children being raised by gay parents and for schools that want to send a signal that such students and parents are welcome.

“In this day and age, you have to say what you mean,” said Burt Carney, the director for legal and legislative issues for the Association of Christian Schools International, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. “If you have a position on homosexuality, you have to name it.”

Policies Relating to Sexual Orientation: A Sampler

Religious schools are clarifying their policies concerning the sexual orientation of students, parents, and faculty. The policies tend to be drawn up at the school level and can differ even within the same religious denomination.

Mr. Carney has been telling the ACSI’s membership of 4,000 conservative Christian schools in the United States that rather than just prohibit “sexual immorality,” a school should spell out in policies the practices—such as premarital sex or homosexual relations—that it deems unacceptable. He listed some Christian denominations—Baptist, Assemblies of God, Calvary Christian, Mennonite, Evangelical Free, and Nazarene—that take a strong stand that the Bible says homosexual practice is wrong and operate schools that are members of the ACSI.

At the same time, some private schools run by religious groups that welcome practicing homosexuals in worship and leadership are updating their policies to say they don’t discriminate according to sexual orientation. Individual schools with such policies are run by Episcopalians, Quakers, and members of the more liberal branches of Judaism.

The nation’s Muslim schools typically do not explicitly mention homosexuality in policies, according to Nabil Sadoun, a Dallas-based educational consultant for Muslim schools. “They talk about maintaining an Islamic lifestyle. It implicitly rules out homosexuality or other lifestyles that are not allowed in Islam,” he said.

At least two lawsuits are pending against Christian schools that expelled students who acknowledged being or were suspected of being gay. And a lesbian couple expects to reach a final settlement soon with a Roman Catholic school in Oregon that allegedly denied admission to their daughter in August 2003 because of the women’s sexual orientation, according to a lawyer for the couple.

Despite the flurry of activity, gay-rights advocates generally don’t expect religious schools will lose their right, under the First Amendment, to cite homosexuality in admission or expulsion decisions. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America had the right to fire an assistant scoutmaster of a New Jersey troop who was gay because homosexual conduct is deemed inconsistent with the values of the organization.

“For the most part, religious schools, or any private institution, can exclude gay people if they want to,” said Paul Cates, the director of public education for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, based in New York City. He added that 17 states and the District of Columbia have civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, but that most of those laws make an exception for religious organizations.

Pending Lawsuits

In these pending lawsuits, students are bringing their schools to court for allegedly expelling them because they were suspected of being gay.

But some lawyers are trying to break new legal ground.

Kirk D. Hanson is a lawyer representing two families who are suing the California Lutheran High School Association because one of its schools, California Lutheran High School in Wildomar, Calif., expelled two girls this school year allegedly because school officials perceived them to be lesbians. He is arguing that California Lutheran is a business and thus subject to the state’s civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Mr. Hanson said if his clients win, it won’t matter how religious schools in California write their policies concerning sexual orientation because they won’t be permitted to deny a student admission based on that factor.

But John P. McKay, one of the lawyers representing the school, contends it is a religious institution and thus exempt from the state civil rights law.

Martha L. Walters, a lawyer representing Lee Inkmann and Trish Wilson, the lesbian couple whose child was allegedly denied admission to O’Hara Catholic School in Eugene, Ore., said a local ordinance prohibiting discrimination in places open to the public helped the couple win a tentative settlement.

A spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Portland said school officials couldn’t comment on the lawsuit while it is still being litigated.

Jewish Student Pushes for Club

The film “Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School,” now making the rounds at Jewish day schools and at film festivals, shows how controversial it can be for a student to try to establish a gay-straight alliance in a religious school.

Student Shulamit Izen, in a still from the film "Hineini," faced resistance when she tried to start a pro-gay advocacy group at a Jewish school. The school allowed a support group.

Student Shulamit Izen, in a still from the film “Hineini,” faced resistance when she tried to start a pro-gay advocacy group at a Jewish school. The school allowed a support group.
—Courtesy of Keshet

The 62-minute documentary tells how Shulamit Izen, a lesbian from a Reform Jewish family who is now a junior at Brown University in Providence, R.I., began fighting for such a club as a junior at the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, now called Gann Academy. In Hebrew, hineini means “Here I am.”

The film was produced by Keshet, a support and advocacy group for gay Jews, based in Jamaica Plain, Mass.

In the film, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, ordained as an Orthodox rabbi and the school’s headmaster, is concerned about alienating the sizable Orthodox Jewish constituency of the school, which enrolls 285 students in grades 9-12 from a cross section of Judaism.

Rabbi Lehmann says he doesn’t want to create “an environment in which there is a sort of pressure to accept the position that homosexuality is OK.”

Over the time that Ms. Izen pushes for the club, four teachers come out to the school community as gay or lesbian. In the end, school officials approve a club that is authorized to support gay or lesbian youths, but not to take an advocacy role.

Another lawsuit, filed by Carol Gload of Jupiter, Fla., and her son, Jeffrey Woodard, against Jupiter Christian School, argues that the school didn’t have a written policy explaining that homosexuality was grounds for dismissal.

The lawsuit argues that Jupiter Christian School officials expelled Mr. Woodard during the 2003-04 school year because he is gay. One of the claims in the lawsuit is that the school breached its contract with Ms. Gload and her son, who was a senior at the time. It also contends the school inflicted emotional distress on Mr. Woodard with the expulsion.

John Bryan Jr., the lawyer for Jupiter Christian School, said the policy in the student handbook stating that “sexual immorality” is an act of misconduct provided sufficient reason for the school’s action.

“People are trying to find some backdoor way of getting around what the United States Supreme Court allows these schools to do,” Mr. Bryan said.

Observers who follow the issue say lawsuits against religious schools for how they’ve responded to gay or lesbian students or parents are relatively new.

“This was unheard of 20 years ago, as far as people suing schools,” said Mr. Carney of the Association of Christian Schools International. “People were ashamed of certain behaviors, and they aren’t as ashamed anymore, and they will sue over those issues.”

Even schools that haven’t faced lawsuits are taking steps to clarify their policies. North Cobb Christian School, in Kennesaw, Ga., has from its start in 1986 stated its position on homosexuality. On its Web site, the school posts a statement saying that a student can be denied admission or dismissed if conduct in the home or conduct of the student, including homosexuality, opposes the “biblical lifestyle taught by the school.”

“Because some of the lawsuits have come to the forefront, it’s important to have in your handbooks or policy manuals a clear understanding of who you are and what you are trying to do,” said Gary Coker, the headmaster of North Cobb Christian.

A child being raised by a gay couple isn’t a good fit for North Cobb Christian because it is best if what is taught at school—in this case, that homosexual conduct is unacceptable according to biblical principles—isn’t at odds with what’s taught at home, he said.

From the other side of the issue, Marc Adams, a gay-rights activist who tried and then rejected “reparative therapy” for his sexual orientation while attending the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., agreed that students’ and families’ attitudes are changing.

“In the past, mostly if you got expelled from one of these schools, you were so filled with shame that you believed they were right, and it kept you quiet,” he said. Now, he said, “a lot of these kids are not coming from families that are as conservative as the schools are.”

Mr. Adams founded HeartStrong Inc., based in Seattle, Wash., which advises gay students from religious schools.

Even if families decide not to sue over schools’ actions, they may seek out or agree to media coverage to assert their belief that while religious schools may have the legal right to exclude gay students or the children of same-sex couples, it’s not the right thing to do.

Debbie Roberts, front, tries to talk Danny Richeson, 5, into coming to a baseball game. Behind them, Danny's parents, Bill Richeson, left, and John Barnby, center, converse with Jessie Lampley during a recent after-service coffee time at St. Ann's Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tenn.

When the adopted son of John Barnby and his partner, Bill Richeson, was denied admission by Donelson Christian Academy in Nashville, Tenn., for the 2006-07 school year because the couple is gay, Mr. Barnby shared his experience in a letter to a local organization for gay and lesbian couples with children. At the urging of someone who read the story, Mr. Barnby agreed to tell it to the local media, and it was covered by radio and newspaper reporters.

Mr. Barnby said that he, his partner, and their son, Danny Richeson, were received warmly at an open house at Donelson Christian last November. But after he and Mr. Richeson filed an application to enroll their son in the school, Mr. Barnby got a phone call, he said, from the school’s headmaster, who inquired if he and his partner were gay. When Mr. Barnby confirmed that they were, he recalled, the headmaster said, “John, this is a Christian school for Christian families. Your lifestyle is an abomination against God, and if Danny attends school here, he’ll be taught that you and your partner are subject to God’s ultimate punishment for a life of sin.”

Mr. Barnby said he told the headmaster that he appreciated his honesty, but that “we are a Christian family,” and that he and Mr. Richeson, who are active in St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, had hoped to find a Christian school environment for their son.

The school formally rejected the couple’s application in a letter, and the couple enrolled Danny in a secular private school for this coming fall. Mr. Barnby said the experience with Donelson Christian made him sad, because it gave him a sense of the kinds of discrimination his son, who is 5, might experience in the future.

Donelson Christian officials didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.

Mr. Adams of HeartStrong emphasizes that even schools within the same religious tradition may react differently to gay students or parents in their school communities. That appears to be true for some Roman Catholic schools.

Sister Glenn Anne McPhee, the secretary of education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said most Catholic dioceses and schools don’t spell out a policy on homosexuality as it relates to admissions and other school decisions, but treat situations in which people disclose their gay orientation in the school community on a case-by-case basis.

The Catholic catechism says that people with a homosexual orientation “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” but it rejects homosexual acts and says that gay people “are called to chastity.”

A case-by-case approach is especially important when schools address sexual-identity issues among students, Sister McPhee said. “So many high school kids are just exploring and defining their sexuality,” she said. “There will be some homosexual tendencies during that exploratory time of their lives. That doesn’t mean they are homosexuals.”

While O’Hara Catholic School in Oregon reportedly refused to enroll Ms. Inkmann and Ms. Wilson’s child, St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Costa Mesa, Calif., stood by its decision last school year to continue to enroll two boys being raised by two gay men, despite protests from other parents in the school.

The Rev. Gerald M. Horan, the superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Orange County, Calif., said that in response to the controversy, the school wrote a policy clarifying that “the personal family background of a student does not constitute an absolute obstacle to enrollment in the school.”

Kristin Langner, who is now a freshman at the University of Northern Iowa, reports that she had a mostly positive experience at Don Bosco High School, a Catholic school in Gilbertville, Iowa. School officials learned during her freshman year there that she had told friends she was a lesbian. “I had confided in a few of my friends,” said Ms. Langner, who graduated last spring. “Someone else must have heard and proceeded to spread it around.”

Kristin Langner, playing with her cat Wolfgang, says that even after being outed by other students as a lesbian, she felt generally accepted at Don Bosco High School, a Roman Catholic school in Gilbertville, Iowa. She is now a freshman at the University of Northern Iowa.

Ms. Langner said she once took a girl as a date to a school dance, but otherwise didn’t push the envelope since she was the only student at school who was openly gay. Ms. Langner made some close friends at school and believes her peers there were generally more accepting of her sexual identity than some students might have been at a public school. In addition, she said, she never got the impression from school officials that she wasn’t welcome to continue to attend after they became aware of her sexual orientation.

Ms. Langner said that Don Bosco’s student handbook didn’t say anything about students’ sexual orientation or sexual conduct, and that school officials never cited a policy on the issue to her.

But one decision made by the Archdiocese of Dubuque, she said, and carried out by school administrators upset her.

During her senior year, Ms. Langner said, she was selected to receive a Matthew Shepard Scholarship, awarded by a Des Moines foundation to gay or lesbian Iowa youths who have shown leadership. But school officials wouldn’t let someone from the program present the award to her at school, she said.

Matt O’Loughlin, who is in his first year as Don Bosco’s principal, said that school officials did announce at a school awards assembly and at graduation that Ms. Langner had received the scholarship.

Ms. Langner believes the purpose of the award—to honor gay and lesbian youths—was a factor in how the school and archdiocese handled the matter of the presenation.

“By the time my senior year rolled around, I was feeling accepted,” she said. “That was a slap in the face.”

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