It became a story last week that Karen Pence, the wife of vice president Mike Pence is teaching art classes at a private school in Virginia that holds to Biblical values and expects students and staff to abide by a code of conduct which comports with Biblical teachings. This has drawn criticism because Immanuel Christian School, where Pence teaches, has a policy banning LGBT expressions or relationships.
It is a private school. Every family with students at this school has willingly chosen to send their children to this school. These are values that are shared by large portions of the American population. These values have been standard within Christendom for centuries. There are lots of religious private schools which have similar policies and expectations.
One D.C. area school has boycotted playing road games at Immanuel, due to their policy. This week, a statement was released by Jessica Donovan who’s head of school at Sheridan.
Some statements in the letter (quoted in full at the bottom of this post) caught my attention. For instance, Donovan said Sheridan School has a “fundamental belief in diversity and inclusion,” yet they criticize a Christian school for holding to traditionally Christian values. Where is the inclusion?
This is the epitome of intolerance. A Christian school holds to Christian values for students. And another school responds by limiting interacting with them?
This is one of the most absurd stories I’ve seen so far this year.
From the Sheridan letter, Donovan says: “the majority of students wanted to play, we were initially planning to go to ICS with the student-athletes wearing a statement of support (such as rainbow socks or warm-up jerseys). As we talked more, we understood that some students did not feel safe entering a school that bans LGBTQ parents, students or even families that support LGBTQ rights. Forcing our children to choose between an environment in which they feel unsafe or staying home was not an option. So we decided that we would invite ICS to play all of the games at Sheridan.”
Couple things catch my attention with that statement. She says “the majority of students wanted to play,” but that “as we talked more, we understood that some students did not feel safe entering the school.” In other words, most of the students don’t care, but we kept talking until we found “some” who have an issue and we allowed for minority rule. And they are doing this on an absurd premise.
So Sheridan will play home games against Immanuel (where it’s safe), but they will not play road games at Immanuel, because there’s a good chance the Immanuel students will summarily round up and execute anyone with an opposing viewpoint. Apparently.
I looked at Sheridan’s basketball schedule. They play Catholic schools, they play other religiously affiliated schools. Immanuel’s policy is not some obscure, fringe belief among Christians.
For the few students who said that they felt unsafe playing at a traditionally Christian school, Sheridan School had a teachable moment. They could have taught that the views Immaneul has are views that half the country has. And that in college, in professional environments, in neighborhoods, and in families, there will be people who have that view, and we need to learn to coexist and get along. We don’t all agree on what is and isn’t moral. But we shouldn’t let that disagreement be the burier between interacting with the other side.
Sheridan School squandered that opportunity by affirming and reenforcing fear and division. It is they who are not inclusive.
Here’s the letter that Jessica Donovan sent on behalf of the Sheridan School:
At Sheridan School, we pride ourselves in the fact that we are teaching children to be allies and upstandanders and to speak out when they perceive injustice. It is in the DNA of the work we do, and we know it is serving our children well when we hear from the high schools that our students are leaders and advocates in their schools…
Along with many of you, we learned last week that Immanuel Christian School, a school in our athletic conference, has a written policy prohibiting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, parents and teachers. Given our school’s fundamental belief in diversity and inclusion as expressed in our diversity statement, this information, and what to do about it, poses obvious challenges. While we have played ICS in the past, we were not aware of its policies, so this new information prompted conversations among the staff and many families. While we were still gathering information, we also heard from our students who were upset about ICS’s exclusionary this policy and wanted to take action.
Last week, Jay Briar (Middle School Head), Calvin Snyder (Varsity Girls coach and Athletic Director), Brent Levin (Varsity Boys coach) and I met with student leaders of the two varsity basketball teams to hear their perspectives. I told them that the ultimate decision about what we do would be mine, but that I cared greatly about their perspective. There was agreement that the students were uncomfortable playing ICS, but not on what we should do. The leaders then spoke with the rest of the junior varsity and varsity basketball players. Some suggested we should not play the school at all and others suggested that we should play and make a peaceful and respectful statement. The majority said they would like to play while making some kind of statement. As the news spread, many of you have reached out to us, and we have been very proud of the thoughtful and action-oriented responses we have received from teachers, parents, coaches and student-athletes.
Since the majority of students wanted to play, we were initially planning to go to ICS with the student-athletes wearing a statement of support (such as rainbow socks or warm-up jerseys). As we talked more, we understood that some students did not feel safe entering a school that bans LGBTQ parents, students or even families that support LGBTQ rights. Forcing our children to choose between an environment in which they feel unsafe or staying home was not an option. So we decided that we would invite ICS to play all of the games at Sheridan. Since ICS declined our offer to host, we will only play our home games and will not go to ICS to play.
Throughout the conversations with the students, we have had many opportunities for engaging dialogue. We talked about how tough problems take time to resolve and, sometimes, even after they are resolved it doesn’t feel just right. We talked about the idea of a team and what it means when we all stand together. We discussed human rights and why some are more protected than others. We shared that people who believe differently from us do not deserve disrespect, and the best way to engage with others is through respect and dialogue. We were clear to separate the ideals of Christianity with the policies
of this particular school, as we play many Christian schools that support LGBTQ rights.
I wish you could have been in on the conversations with our students. You would burst with pride to see how thoughtful, mature, engaged, and empathetic our students are. We are grateful for all of the parents, teachers, and students for the thoughtful ways they have shared their views, experiences and ideas for how best to respond in a way that still allows us to connect with people and groups with differing views, while also standing up for the people and values that we support.
In the end, we know that all of our students will feel safe playing at Sheridan. They will wear their rainbow socks in support of LGBTQ rights and they will play their hearts out. Some have made banners that respectfully celebrate LGBTQ rights. We will welcome our guests and show good sportsmanship. If you’d like to come out to support our teams, the varsity games will be on Wednesday at Sheridan beginning at 3:30 and the junior varsity games will be February 12 beginning at 3:30.
This is a challenging situation, and we are working through difficult and sometimes hurtful issues, but the Sheridan community’s response — and most especially that of our children — has been inspiring. Thank you for entrusting your children with us. They are making the world better every day.
Head of School
Washington, DC 20008
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Josh Benner has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has served churches in Minnesota and Illinois. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in St. Louis.