How do schools balance the need to protect gay students from harassment with the rights of conservative Christian students to express their views objecting to homosexuality? That was the subject of a special session Sunday titled Student Religious Expression in the Public Schools: Where is the First Amendment Balancing Point?
Not surprisingly, both sides say this balancing point is set in the wrong place, and both offer widely varying views of the climate they see in schools today. To many gay and lesbian students, school is scary place where the threat of harassment is very much real. By contrast, many conservative Christians say they are the ones being harassed, that they are unconstitutionally prevented from expressing their religious beliefs while being asked to approve of what they consider an immoral lifestyle.
The three panelists at Sunday’s session — an evangelical Christian, a leader of a prominent gay and lesbian organization, and a First Amendment scholar — are trying to stake out a middle ground that protects the rights of all students.
“We do, in fact, have a way to deal with this that brings us together,” said Charles Haynes, director of the First Amendment Center in Washington. D.C., which is creating guidelines for schools that will be released in a few weeks.
And then, turning to his colleagues on the panel — Finn Laursen, executive director of Christian Educators Association International, and Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) — Haynes said: “These two courageous people help us to do that. In fact, the guidelines would not happen without GLSEN and the Christian Educators.”
The group’s goal is to foster a school environment of openness and respect for one another’s views. That doesn’t mean that all deep disagreements will be solved, noted moderator Sonja Trainor, senior staf attorney at NSBA. “But I guarantee you it’s going to go better if there is a climate of responsibly and respect.”
Byard said that 90 percent of gay and lesbian students report that they are physically or verbally assaulted in school, with about one in five having been physically assaulted. And it is not just gay students who are victims of verbal abuse.
“The words ‘faggot’ and ‘dyke’ are not part of any religious creed, and harassment and assault are crimes,” Byard said.
She said she worried about what would happen when her 5-year-old daughter returned from her first day of kindergarten with an assignment to draw her family. “And my daughter happens to have two moms.” Byard said. “I sent my 5-year old girl into a new environment where she was going to sit in a circle at her school and hold up that picture of her family.”
She said she hoped the teacher would treat the issue with sensitivity.
On the other side, an audience member said her high-school-age daughter was asked to draw a mural and chose a symbolic representation of a young man’s progress to adulthood. The mural showed him marrying a woman and having children. An administrator initially would not allow that part of the mural to be displayed because it was not inclusive of non-heterosexual relationships; however, he was later overruled.
No one on the panel said the administrator’s original decision was proper, but Laursen said that Christian students are often taught, against their religious beliefs, that homosexual relationships are “normal.” Byard countered that such teaching was only reflecting reality.
“The fact is, I’m normal,” Byard said. “My family is normal. I’m part of the school community.”
Despite their differences, Laursen and Byard have worked on this issue for several years and consider each other friends. It is that kind of dialog that Haynes said would help schools get closer to resolving this issue.
“The law will not answer this,” Haynes said. “We will be endlessly litigating and fighting if that’s what we depend on.”