The Charles Finney School, a private Christian school in Penfield, New York, has come under fire from parents and students after updating its school handbook to include more anti-LGBTQ policies.
One new policy added to the student handbook allows the school to “discontinue enrollment” for students who lead “homosexual lifestyles or alternative gender identities” or are involved in “promoting, encouraging, or influencing other students about such practices on campus.” The school has justified this provision, in an email sent to parents of children enrolled in this school, by arguing that such “LGBTQ lifestyles” conflict with its Christian values.
The email is wrapped-up in flowery wording about The Charles Finney School trying to engender an environment that embodies Christian “love” that “seeks to educate, restore, and heal.” But the message, both in the email and the policy change itself, is clear: LGBTQ identities are not allowed within the halls of the school.
“The school’s mission is to provide quality education in the context of a distinctively Christian environment and values,” the email reads. “The desired outcome is never to offend, wound, or condemn. It is the school’s position to take time to listen, value, forgive, and show the love of Christ to others who struggle in the area of their sexuality. The school will work with parents and students who wish to attend the school and are willing to support the school’s position.”
“In cases where the student’s actions in school are in direct contradiction or opposition to the school’s behavior standards or Biblical worldview the school reserves the right, within its sole discretion as a non-profit Christian school, to discontinue enrollment,” the revised handbook reads.
The handbook revisions have outraged parents, who, in turn, have criticized the school’s leadership team, with at least two parents removing their children from the school.
Heidi Buckler, a parent who enrolled her two children in the school beginning in 2018, said the new policy horrified her.
“It goes against everything I thought this school stood for because the Bible says that Jesus loves everyone regardless,” Buckler told Rochester-based ABC affiliate WHAM. “You are specifically singling out one particular group of children, children that are no longer welcome in your school.”
A second parent, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her children, told WHAM that the school had actually held a panel on sexuality this past spring, which included an expert who claimed to offer services that amount to conversion therapy, which is outlawed in New York.
“My son said they never called him a conversion therapist but said he could work with you to make you not gay,” the mother, whose son is LGBTQ, told WHAM. “I was furious. I was sick. I couldn’t believe they would actually bring someone in to say these things to convince kids that they need to change who they are.”
Michael VanLeeuwen, the president of The Charles Finney School, denies ever promoting conversion therapy.
“We have never had a therapist on campus telling students that they would work with them to ‘make them not gay.’ Nothing like this has ever been mentioned by anyone at our school,” Van Leeuwen said in an email to WHAM. “We had a panel discussion last year that included a variety of people from various backgrounds addressing questions students had in regards to alternative lifestyles and answered those questions based on a Biblical perspective. The messaging was not confrontational or condemning in any way, shape, or form.
“We are a very diverse, loving community and our desire is that all of our students know that we love and care for them regardless of their political, religious, or sexual identity,” he added.
VanLeeuwen also said that no students have been asked to leave as a result of their LGBTQ identity — at least thus far — but reiterated that “promotion of alternative lifestyles” is prohibited, and that parents have the choice to decide whether or not to enroll their children based on whether they agree with that policy.
While religious schools are exempt from having to abide by state nondiscrimination laws under the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of religion, some religiously-affiliated schools have nonetheless come under scrutiny for their anti-LGBTQ policies. A Catholic diocese in Lafayette, Louisiana, has instituted a “sexual identity policy” that bans “behaviors and expressions” of sexuality and gender identity that conflict with Church teaching on human sexuality.
In Indianapolis, at least four employees of Catholic schools — including a straight person who stood up for an LGBTQ colleague — have been fired for either condoning or entering into same-sex marriages. In July, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, on the grounds that employees of Catholic schools are considered “ministers of the faith” responsibly with upholding and living by Church doctrine in their everyday lives.
The same principle applies to The Charles Finney School, notes Democratic New York Assemblywoman Jen Lunsford.
“They can effectively do whatever they want, so long as it is in line with the ethos and values of the religion that they subscribe to, and legally they are insulated from most legislative action that would otherwise protect students in public or non-religious settings,” Lunsford said.
That said, parents have the option of refusing to enroll their children at institutions that discriminate against LGBTQ students, but can only do so if they know that such discrimination is occurring.
“To say that they will disenroll you because the way you are born is wrong to me, and I think people should know about it,” Lunsford said.
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