Religious Schools Across the U.S. Grapple With How to Handle LGBT Students

Religious Schools Across the U.S. Grapple With How to Handle LGBT Students

In the first month of his senior year at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, Tenn., Lance Sanderson should be in class and preparing college applications. Instead, the teenager is currently at home for a weeklong suspension that he said the administration issued because he wanted to bring a boy to the school's homecoming dance last weekend. 

For now, Sanderson is at a crossroads. "I have to consider whether the administration wants me, whether the student body wants me and I'm not sure," he told Mic. "I'm just not sure if I'm going back, or what's gonna happen."

Sanderson's ordeal, which Mic first reported last week, is striking but not unique. Across the country, America's political landscape has changed drastically in just a matter of a few decades. For instance, in 2005 support for same-sex marriage among people under 30 was 57%, according to the Washington Post. Ten years later, that support has ballooned to 78%. 

That change in public opinion is most noticeable in popular culture, where Miley Cyrus is proudly pansexual and one of America's most popular television shows, Orange is the New Black, features openly queer cast members whose storylines involve sexually explicit scenes. But that cultural shift has put many religious schools, whose doctrines both implicitly and explicitly frown upon LGBT relationships, in the awkward position of legally protecting students to whom they are morally ambivalent. 

Christian Brothers High School has not responded to numerous requests for comment from Mic. The administration, however, did write a letter to the school community about the ordeal and the ensuing media attention. 

"Over the years, we have met with gay graduates who have asked about the school and we have assured them it is a kinder and gentler school and that this generation of students is very welcoming of students from all backgrounds," the administration wrote. "They are not homophobic and we are proud of their brotherhood."  The administration wrote that the school had formed a committee of four staff members, "three of whom have a gay sibling or son," to come up with a school dance policy that is inclusive of all students but "follow[s] current school policies, Catholic teachings, and Lasallian principles."

Still, public and private schools have often been one of a battleground for young LGBT students. In response to annual calls from LGBT students who say they are banned from attending their school's prom, the American Civil Liberties Union released a "Know Your Rights" guide that even includes a form letter to principals and superintendents outlining students' legal rights. LGBT and gender-nonconforming students face higher than average levels of bullying, according to experts. Such bullying, coupled with a lack of support from teachers, administrators and counselors, puts many LGBT and gender non-conforming students, particularly those of color, at greater risk for school discipline, according to the Gay Straight Alliance Network, which works with schools. 

For some advocates, the question of religion is almost irrelevant. "As an educator you have a moral and professional obligation to help each student fulfill their potential, whether you agree with them or like them or not," Kevin Jennings, a former assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education, told Mic. "Schools are not churches, even if they're owned by churches, and if your personal belief system prevents you from your professional obligation, you should find another a job."

Small gestures go a long way: Some institutions of faith have decided that their religious principles are precisely why it's important for them to create inclusive environments for students. In 2013, an all-boys Jesuit Catholic school in Rochester, New York allowed gay couples to attend its school dances. "If our two brothers who have asked to attend the Junior Ball wish to do so, they will be welcomed," wrote Father Edward Salmon, school president at McQuaid Jesuit High School. In a letter to the school's community explaining its decision, Father Salmon quoted the United States Conference on Catholic Bishops and wrote, "We understand that having a homosexual orientation brings with it enough anxiety, pain and issues related to self-acceptance without society bringing additional prejudicial treatment."

Other schools of faith have made similar gestures. Last year, Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, opened its first ever gender-neutral bathroom in honor of an alum who began transitioning while a student. "For most people this will remain just a bathroom," Sharon P. Levin, head of school at Barrack Hebrew Academy, told Mic last year. Levin said she recognized that some students needed a bathroom space that felt safe and gender-affirming. 

Using my religion: As more students demand their rights, some religious schools are pushing back, and pointing to their church's teachings as justification. Their point is that they, too, are people of faith, and shouldn't be discriminated against because of their sexuality. 

Last year, Austin Wallis, a 17-year-old high school student in Houston, was kicked out of his Lutheran private school after administrators caught wind of his YouTube series, which he used to give advice to closeted teens. Wallis told Mic that he's reached out to Sanderson to offer support. "He just wants to be happy and bring his date to prom and they have to make him feel less of a person by not giving him that right ,and now they're making him leave his school," Wallis told Mic. "They should be pointing the finger at themselves and whoever made that decision." 

In a video that Wallis made last year after he was kicked out of his school, he described how painful the experience was for him. "I think it's ridiculous that people are allowed to exclude children and teens for what they are," he said in tears.

For LGBT people of faith, stories like Sanderson's and Wallis' show that there is often a disconnect between parishioners and the institutions that serve them. "There's a need for organizing among LGBTQ people of faith to emphasize that they exist and deserve to be in those spaces," Noah Lewis, the transgender policy counsel at the National LGBT Taskforce, told Mic. "There's a larger percentage of people of faith who are welcoming of LGBT people."

Victoria Kirby York, the Taskforce's national campaigns director, echoed that point, saying religious teachings should not be manipulated to punish children for being themselves. "We don't kick our kids out of school because they tell a white lie, or they chose to get their ears pieced, or ate crawfish for lunch," York told Mic. "There are a number of things that institutions of faith don't punish children for."

In a letter that Sanderson wrote to his administration this week, he made it clear that he wants to treated like an ordinary student. 

"CBHS has always taught me that I should strive to always do the right thing in every situation," Sanderson wrote. "For these reasons and more...I will continue to push the school on these issues, with the hope that one day all CBHS students will be accepted for who they are."

Correction: Oct. 3, 2015
An earlier version of this article referred to Lance Sanderson as Lance Stephenson, which is incorrect.