Feature Pages 36-41
When Worldviews Collide
A role for public school educators to negotiate conflicts over sexual orientation and religious expression
BY CHARLES C. HAYNES
Escalating conflicts over issues involving sexual orientation in public schools often pit conservative Christians against proponents of gay rights — with school leaders caught in the crossfire.
Some beleaguered school administrators attempt to put a lid on the controversy by censoring student expression on one side or the other. But that tactic seems to make matters worse.
Consider the conflict involving Maverick Couch, a gay student who won a court settlement last spring allowing him to wear his “Jesus is not a homophobe” T-shirt to his public high school in Waynesville, Ohio. The school district was ordered to pay $20,000 in damages and court costs for violating the student’s First Amendment rights.
Charles Haynes (left) with students at an education forum at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., about First Amendment issues in schools
Meanwhile, in other communities, conservative religious students have won the right to counter pro-gay messages with apparel proclaiming their own views about homosexuality. In 2008, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Christian students Alexander Nuxoll and Heidi Zamecnik in their challenge of the ban on “be happy, not gay” T-shirts at their suburban Chicago high school.
With emotions running high over how to address sexual orientation in public schools, every action by one side is viewed as an attack by the other.
Thus a “Day of Silence” in schools to protest treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students is countered by a “Day of Dialogue” (formerly “Day of Truth”) to encourage conservative Christian students to speak out for their religious convictions. The first initiative is sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and the second by the conservative religious group Focus on the Family.
Beyond T-shirt wars and dueling advocacy days, debates over homosexuality now affect the curriculum, recognition of student clubs and other aspects of school life. Winners and losers in these battles often are determined by geographical location.
Gay-rights friendly California has a new law requiring public schools to include the contributions of GLBT people in social studies and history. And in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal, many schools include images and stories of same-sex families in the K-12 curriculum.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in more conservative states are searching for ways to keep discussion of sexual orientation out of the schools altogether.
Earlier this year, a group of Republican legislators in Missouri proposed a bill that would prohibit the discussion of sexual orientation in public school instruction, classroom materials and extracurricular activities “except in scientific instruction on human reproduction.” Derided by opponents as the “don’t say gay” bill, it has not yet passed.
A similar legislative measure did pass the Tennessee state senate last year but died in the House. Utah lawmakers passed their own version of “don’t say gay,” but the bill was vetoed by the governor last spring.
Fights over student clubs generally reflect the same regional and ideological divide. Despite the federal Equal Access Act protecting the right of secondary students to form religious and political clubs (if the school allows other extracurricular clubs), opposition to Gay-Straight Alliance clubs continues in conservative states like Texas, and resistance to Bible clubs persists in more liberal states like California.
For an example of how this debate divides local communities, consider the recent conflict in Anoka-Hennepin School District, Minnesota’s largest school system with 39,000 students, which got national media attention partly because of its location in Michele Bachmann’s congressional district.
Advocates for gay students argued that school district policy banning discussion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues in the curriculum — and requiring staff to be “neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation” — marginalized gay students and contributed to the hostile environment they experienced each day. Eight students in the district committed suicide during the previous two years — at least four of them reportedly struggled with issues of sexual identity.
The Minnesota Family Council and other conservative Christian groups strongly defended the silent treatment, arguing that bullying can be adequately addressed without discussion of GLBT issues. In their view, inclusion of sexual orientation in anti-bullying policies is used by gay activists as a gateway for promotion of homosexuality in schools.
Although Anoka-Hennepin school officials contended they took adequate measures to combat bullying, six students filed suit last year charging the district had failed to address persistent and widespread harassment of GLBT students. In March, the school district settled the case. The student plaintiffs were awarded $270,000, and the school district agreed to add staff to combat bullying of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.
As Anoka-Hennepin schools learned the hard way, silence may please some religious constituents, but it will not keep the peace. GLBT students and their parents are no longer content to be invisible or harassed. School districts that fail to address sexual orientation issues, including anti-gay bullying, could face a lawsuit much like the one in Anoka-Hennepin.
With citizens deeply divided on how to address sexual orientation in public schools, public school officials should keep in mind they are not culture warriors but rather honest brokers of a dialogue that includes all stakeholders. If schools are going to find agreement on policies and practices that bring the community together, administrators must not choose a side and coerce others to accept it.
Exhibit A of what not to do is the case of Thomas McLaughlin, a junior high school student in Pulaski County, Ark. In 2003, McLaughlin complained that because he refused to keep quiet about being gay, school officials harassed and punished him — forcing him at one point to read aloud Bible verses and prayers. After his family filed a lawsuit, the school district settled by paying damages and apologizing to the student.
On the flip side, Betsy Hansen, a high school student in Ann Arbor, Mich., challenged her school district in 2002 for censoring her religious views in opposition to homosexuality. During a “diversity week” program, school officials prevented Hansen from delivering a speech she was asked to give because they claimed her Roman Catholic views on homosexuality were “negative.” The student sued and won when a judge ruled her free speech rights had been violated.
As the outcomes of these court cases make clear, public schools may neither impose one religious view of homosexuality nor censor the religious convictions of students. Because public schools belong to all citizens, it is the duty of school leaders to bring people with divergent views together to develop policies and practices that ensure fairness for all members of the school community.
To help school communities identify a process for addressing conflicts that arise over sexual orientation with civility and respect, the First Amendment Center published in 2006 “Public Schools and Sexual Orientation: A First Amendment Framework for Finding Common Ground.” Developed in collaboration with BridgeBuilders, the drafting committee included representatives from the Christian Educators Association International and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network — two groups with widely divergent views on homosexuality but with a shared commitment to civility. The guide also received endorsement by AASA.
As the guidelines point out, the best starting point for dialogue is the common ground that already exists. Most parents and students on both sides want public schools that uphold the rights of all students in a safe learning environment.
More challenging, but still attainable, is to reach agreement on the shared civic responsibility to guard the rights of others, including those with whom we disagree. All sides also must agree to debate one another without resorting to personal attacks, ridicule, false characterizations of opposing positions and similar tactics.
Within this civic framework of rights and responsibilities, people with deep differences are able to engage in constructive dialogue. The guidelines recommend school districts consider creating a “common ground task force” that represents the range of perspectives in the community.
Given time and opportunity, individuals with opposing views can learn to trust and respect one another. And that trust and respect then can translate into shared recommendations on safe schools, balanced curricula, appropriate student expression and other issues.
A Balancing Act
One of the most sensitive and potentially volatile challenges school leaders face in addressing sexual orientation is how to maintain a safe learning environment while simultaneously upholding the free speech rights of students. Because gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students are frequent targets of bullying, some administrators are confused about whether and when to draw the line on student religious expression about homosexuality. How should schools balance the need for school safety with a commitment to freedom of expression?
A document released last spring, “Harassment, Bullying and Free Expression: Guidelines for Free and Safe Schools,” is designed to help public schools find the right balance. Organized by the First Amendment Center’s Religious Freedom Education Project and the American Jewish Committee, the guidelines are endorsed by a broad coalition of 17 religious and education groups including AASA, National School Boards Association, Christian Legal Society, National Association of State Boards of Education and Muslim Public Affairs Council.
The guidelines point out that much harassment and bullying is physical, “targeting an individual student or classes of students for unwanted touching, bodily assault or threats of violence.” Prohibiting those actions in schools raises no First Amendment concerns.
But bullying also can be verbal, creating a hostile school climate. Following current law, the guidelines draw a distinction between student speech that expresses an idea, including religious and political views, and student speech that is intended to cause (or school officials demonstrate is likely to cause) emotional or psychological harm to the listener. The former is, in most circumstances, protected speech, but the latter may and should be stopped.
As the guide puts it, “Words that convey ideas are one thing; words that are used as assault weapons quite another.”
Student speech about religious and political issues may receive a high level of protection under the First Amendment, but as the T-shirt conflicts cited above demonstrate, such speech also can be controversial and even offensive to some listeners. Students on one side may be tempted to label the views of the other side “harassment or bullying” and demand the school censor the speech.
But the guidelines explain that student speech conveying religious or political ideas is protected by the First Amendment and therefore “may not be the basis for disciplinary action absent a showing of substantial disruption (or likely disruption) or a violation of another student’s legal rights.”
Rather than censoring protected student speech about politics and religion, educators should help students master the skills of civil discourse, including the skill of listening to speech with which one profoundly disagrees.
Public schools must be places that are both safe and free for all students. A safe school is free of bullying and harassment — and a free school is safe for student speech, including speech about issues that divide us.
Remember the Hatches
The conflicts in many school districts about sexual orientation are a reminder we are all a minority somewhere in the country. Baptist students in Mississippi schools don’t need to worry much about how their faith will be treated, but GLBT students in that state likely will have to fight for recognition and protection. GLBT students in San Francisco are open and proud, but evangelical students in the same city often feel marginalized.
If public schools are to serve the common good, those in the religious or political majority need to take responsibility to protect the rights of those in the minority.
In areas of the country where gay rights are strongly protected, religious conservatives need GLBT people to support religious freedom and free speech for religious students in public schools. And in places where gay rights are not yet recognized, GLBT people need religious conservatives to help ensure safe schools for all students.
To paraphrase Rhode Island founder Roger Williams (in his argument with Puritan John Cotton), those who are at the helm in one school district should not forget what it is like to be in the hatches in another.
Winning the peace over issues concerning sexual orientation and religion in public schools isn’t easy — it takes commitment and courage. When school leaders model fairness, civic responsibility and civil discourse, they can inspire people on all sides to support policies and practices that serve the common good.
Charles Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and director of its Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org