This Christian School Board Member Opposes Gay-Straight Alliance Week, but Not For the Usual Reason…

Last night, I got an email about Chris Howell, a member of the Gaston County School Board in North Carolina. Howell is raising a fuss because a bunch of high school students in his district want to cause divisiveness among the students and distract them from learning…

Wait. No. That’s not true.

Actually, members of Highland School of Technology’s Gay-Straight Alliance club want to celebrate a “week promoting tolerance between gay and straight teenagers.” But Howell is opposed to it:

Chris Howell

Howell, a youth pastor at Flint Groves Baptist Church who was elected to the Gaston County Board of Education in November, raised concerns after recently learning the school would sanction Gay-Straight Alliance Week starting April 15.

He said he has been contacted by parents and Highland staff who feel the planned observances will infringe on students who should be focusing on the school curriculum.

“They’re allowing a school-sponsored club to conduct activities during the day that will have a virtual guaranteed outcome of splitting the school and creating division,” Howell said.

Yes, how *dare* those students divide the school into the kind, respectful, tolerant students… and the bullies…

Their nefarious activities include dressing up in tacky clothing, having club members hand out awareness ribbons to students who want them during lunch, and taking part in the Day of Silence. As someone who witnesses first-hand several student-group-sponsored spirit weeks every year, these are run-of-the-mill events and you’re not at all left out by not participating.

Anyway, this story had all the hallmarks of a battle between progressive students and a stodgy Christian conservative in a position of power. And my first impression was that Howell was going to follow in the footsteps of all those right-wing blowhards who belittle LGBT students and their allies.

But the more I read about Howell, the less convinced I became of that.

Howell, who holds conservative Christian views about homosexuality, says this isn’t about the values of the GSA. In fact, he’s fine with students having a GSA club. He may oppose their values, but he’s not trying to infringe on their rights. In essence, his argument is that the GSA has a social agenda that other students may oppose, so they should limit their activities to outside the school day.

But, c’mon. That can’t be it. What about members of a Bible Club? What if they wanted to hold a week of activities? He would love that, wouldn’t he?

No, he wouldn’t:

I stated that I believe “Bible Club” shouldn’t have a week of activities during the school day just as much as the GSA shouldn’t. School should be an environment of learning….from 8:00a – 3:00p this should be our focus as a system. I wonder why none of the people are ripping me for not wanting a “Bible Club Week”?

Holy shit. Consistency! We never see that around these parts…

Howell still misses an important point, though: The GSA’s “agenda” isn’t one of promoting homosexuality (whatever that means) or even promoting “anti-Christian” values. They promote tolerance and inclusion and kindness and respect of all students (regardless of sexual orientation). It’s an anti-bullying group, in many ways, and Howell himself said he would be okay with that:

Howell said he has no problem with such a week being allowed for SAVE, FBLA, or even an anti-bullying student group such as Rachel’s Challenge.

In addition, to treat one club differently from all the rest because of religious reasons (like the Bible Club) would open the door to all sorts of legal problems. So Howell’s suggestion to limit spirit weeks to groups without “agendas” has no real footing.

For what it’s worth, Howell is also wrong about the notion that a spirit week would distract from the school day. The truth is they are awesome ways to get students excited about school.

They promote unity among students — it’s exciting to see your classmates rally behind a cause you also believe in. Sure, there will be causes promoted that you don’t like — welcome to the real world — but your group can always stage your own events another time.

They teach students to stand up for causes they believe in — whether it’s LGBT rights, faith, abortion, or advocacy for some political issue, it’s a way for kids to educate themselves and their peers about these causes and start important discussions that don’t (and often can’t) occur in the classroom.

They don’t take away from instructional time — if students wearing strange clothing stopped me from teaching, I would never get anything done, in any class, ever. I, too, would oppose any “week” that became an obstacle to me doing my job, but these events, if done correctly, don’t do that.

They enhance school spirit — kids get excited, they attend more after-school activities, they get more involved with different clubs, they take leadership roles in these clubs, and they get more out of their high school experience.

At least in the GSA’s case, none of their activities make learning a secondary priority.

The administrators in the district, to their credit, are taking the perfect approach: They’re saying all student groups are welcome to host a week of activities, and the GSA is no different:

“This club has a right like any other club we have to have a week and have some activities, as long as it doesn’t interfere with instructional time,” said [Highland Principal Lee] Dedmon. “It’s a club that exists to promote equality and let the kids know these things are out in the world. The world is a changing place and everybody needs to know there’s different stuff out there.”

“We would do the same for any other club,” [Dedmon] said. “I don’t know how much more fair we can be.”

“My understanding of what’s taking place at Highland is it has little if anything to do with an agenda as far as sexual preference is concerned,” said [Superintendent Reeves] McGlohon. “What they’re trying to do is simply build understanding to talk about tolerance and those kinds of things.”

So Howell is wrong. But he’s not crazy-Christian-bigot wrong. His rhetoric is nothing like that of hate groups that oppose any instance of LGBT students admitting they exist and there’s nothing wrong with them.

I reached out to Howell for comment last night and we had a brief conversation about the points I raised here. He hasn’t changed his opinion on anything yet, but if he does, I’ll post an update.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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