While the national debate over gay marriage escalated following the Vice President’s and President’s remarks of approval, Marion County campaigns for Superintendent and School Board can expect a similar rush of interest in LGBT issues. A lawsuit was filed in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Florida on behalf of two Vanguard High students who had sought to form a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), but were denied by School Superintendent Jim Yancey.
The Ocala Star Banner reported on the lawsuit which seeks to gain the youth group’s approval from Yancey, and recover legal fees.
Gay-Straight Alliance is a national network that is organized for “empowering youth activists to fight homophobia and transphobia in schools.”
Yancey’s reasons to deny the local group’s club application, which met all qualifying requirements, were reported in the noted Star Banner article:
The students had made official requests to Vanguard’s principal, who rejected them. They appealed to Yancey, who also refuted the club’s establishment because “the student club’s purpose is not age appropriate,” the lawsuit stated.
“We don’t have those kinds of conversation [sic] about sexual orientation in our school district,” Yancey said in a phone interview on Thursday. “Those are more appropriate for more family atmospheres and for adult conversations.”
This adds Marion County to the list of school districts that have denied Gay-Straight Alliances from forming and have ended up in court.
The Act provides that if a school receives federal aid and has a “limited open forum,” or at least one student-led non-curriculum club that meets outside of class time, it must allow additional such clubs to be organized, and must give them equal access to meeting spaces and school publications. Exceptions can be made for groups that “materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school,” and a school can technically “opt out” of the act by prohibiting all non-curriculum clubs.
Given the GSA’s mission, the administration will have a difficult time defending refusal of this group’s request.
Now we can expect “the conversation” about sexual orientation in high schools will be taken up not only in court, but also in the political campaigns for school offices that are heating up, as a recent post here noted the high public interest in the School Superintendent race.
The loudest local voices can be expected to endorse Yancey’s decision, but as is common, the loudest voices aren’t always the wisest. One would be hard pressed to think of a better place for these conversations to take place, and for a better mission statement than the Gay-Straight Alliance.
To imagine that such conversations will occur in ‘families’ or ‘among adults’ in any kind of helpful fashion completely misses the point, and even denies reality. The place where the issue is being engaged is in the high schools, precisely not at family tables and water coolers, and obviously it is in high schools (at least) where the conversation on how to engage gay-straight relations needs to be facilitated.
Further, that something regarding human sexuality is not ‘age appropriate’ among high school students is utterly implausible.
However, to call it a “hot potato” that any intelligent administrator would prefer to avoid is perfectly on target. The phone would ring off the hook if such a group gained approval.
Just watch how the candidates will squirm, posture, and prevaricate when this challenge comes up. That irksome tax question is going to be preferable in the future.
To see how ‘families’ and ‘adults’ handle the issue, be sure to attend the next candidate forum or watch the Letters to the Editor page of the Star Banner for a sampling. It should bring forth a level of ugliness that indicates the need for a GSA in every high school at the very least.
Settle this case, save a bundle of money, and move forward in a way that encourages our students to learn about the world around them, not dwell in a fantasy of denial or drown in narrow-minded demagoguery.
The voting among local governing bodies (presbyteries) in the Presbyterian Church, USA on a controversial change to the denomination’s “Book of Order” standards for ordination has passed the midpoint with 55% of the 173 presbyteries reporting their votes to date. The proposed amendment has seen approval by a margin of 55-40, and 55% of over 10,000 individual votes cast by roughly equal numbers of clergy and elders. A majority of presbyteries – 87 – must approve the amendment for it to be adopted.
As stated in a previous post, the amendment would remove the so-called fidelity-and-chastity clause that restricts ordination to those who are in a heterosexual marriage or affirm their chastity in singleness. The amendment is the latest round in a continual struggle that has divided the church since a church court ruling in 1978. Presbyterians ordain clergy or pastors as well as elders and deacons who are lay people. The amendment allows each presbytery to set specific standards for candidates for ordination, what had been the practice until 1978.
In that same post, it was noted that if only 9 presbyteries changed their votes from the 2008 failed attempt to change this clause, then the measure would pass. While many presbyteries are quite predictable in their stance on the position, there has been slow movement toward acceptance of the change in some presbyteries. A compelling 12 presbyteries have changed from their 2008 negative votes to become affirmative for this amendment. Only one presbytery, Lake Huron, has changed its vote from affirmative to negative.
While ongoing voting could still upset the evident momentum, the odds have become highly unlikely. Surprising switches occurred in unlikely areas and by large margins:
[Presbytery … 2010-A % favor … 2008-B % favor]
Blackhawk (northern Illinois) 59% 44%
Central Nebraska 69% 50%
Cincinnati (Ohio) 59% 50%
Eastern Virginia 56% 47%
North Alabama 56% 38%
Riverside (southern California) 56% 44%
St. Augustine (northern Florida) 57% 48%
Savannah (Georgia) 55% 43%
South Alabama 51% 42%
Another previous post stated that large conservative churches expect the amendment’s passage and are trying to organize to deal with that likelihood. Property issues make withdrawal from the denomination more difficult and can involve costly, protracted legal cases. To buy out the Presbytery’s interest in the property can be very costly, and with tight credit markets, it may not be possible for some.
Divisive issues are nothing new for Presbyterians. The American Civil War split the denomination into northern and southern denominations. Over 120 years later in the 180s, the denominations united to become the Presbyterian Church, USA.
Contentious debate over the authority of scripture roiled the denomination from the 1890s into the 1930s as Presbyterians progressed from affirming scripture’s infallibility in the case of Charles Briggs to the rejection of infallibility in the case of J. Gresham Machen who left the denomination to found the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
The guiding Westminster Confession of Faith created in 1646 granted scriptural infallibility, but the Confession of 1967 changed the terms to reflect historical criticism and the importance of changing understandings in society over time.
Jane Spahr, pictured above, is a lesbian pastor who has been a controversial figure for arguing against the anti-gay ordination standard.
In truth, the divisive issues facing Presbyterians trace their source to this basic conflict over scriptural authority. In the Civil War era split, it was over racism. In the 1950s-1970s, it was over the ordination of women. Since 1978, it has been homosexuality. It seems that the struggle will not go away with the passage of 10-A, but its passage will mark a change from which the church is unlikely to retreat.
As mentioned in a previous post, clergy and lay elders in the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA) are meeting in their local governing bodies (called presbyteries) to vote on a controversial amendment (known as 10-A) on ordination standards for clergy, elders and deacons.
The proposed amendment strikes the current language in the PCUSA Book of Order, one of the constitutional documents for the denomination, which allows ordination only if the individual maintains “fidelity in [heterosexual] marriage … or chastity in singleness.” If changed, the new language would allow each presbytery to establish its own standards and criteria for qualifying candidates, similar to the practice prior to a church court ruling in 1978. The denomination has dealt with this issue numerous times in different ways since that ruling, failing to open the door to ordination of gays each time. This time seems like it could be different.
Voting will be continuing for months, but early returns show strong results favoring Amendment 10-A’s adoption. Most presbyteries can be expected to vote similarly to the last time the issue was faced in 2008, but even then the margin of defeat had narrowed. This writer calculates that if only 9 presbyteries (net) switch their vote to favor adoption, then it will pass. With 66 of 173 presbyteries having voted so far (36 for, 30 against), already 6 presbyteries have changed from their 2008 opposition to favor passage of 10-A, while only one presbytery has changed from its 2008 favorable vote to oppose 10-A. One presbytery switching its outcome was St. Augustine Presbytery which includes Marion County.
Conservatives are already making plans. A January, 2011 white paper outlined a desire to form a “New Body,” saying
We think the denomination [PCUSA] no longer provides a viable future. We know that the Covenant Network also sees a broken system for different reasons. We will work together on the longer and more difficult project of seeing how something new might serve the whole church.
They anticipate an outcome to the voting on 10-A that they won’t like.
In the near future, we will need a place within the PCUSA to exist with freedom to express our values with a freedom from the expected ordination changes that will exist in the PCUSA. More importantly, we long for Presbyteries where we have theological and missional consensus rather than fundamental disagreement over so many core issues of theology.
A February 2, 2011 letter reviews the recent history of the denomination’s struggles, outlines the group’s ideas, and invites like-minded Presbyterians to an August conference in Minneapolis. It was signed by pastors of some of the largest PCUSA churches, like Pastor Vic Pentz of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta (pictured). The letter admits
Indeed, many sense that the only unity we have left is contained in the property clause and the pension plan.
The conservative pastors cite the two issues that impede their desire to depart. Church property is not actually owned by the church, but is held in trust by the church for the presbytery. This clause has been successfully contested in some states, but it invites a long and costly legal battle whose outcome would be doubtful. Here is a link to recent history on property cases which prominently affects Episcopalian as well as Presbyterian churches. The prospect of a long, drawn out legal battle tends to dampen enthusiasm for departure by a congregation, particularly when historic ties exist to a location and properties can be worth millions of dollars.
The other issue concerns the pension plan. All pastors are members of the plan and churches are required to contribute to it. They are fully vested after 3 years of service, but departure from the denomination would end further participation.
The plan outlined by the conservative pastors suggests that they would like the denomination to accommodate their departure while they would be “in fellowship” with churches still within the denomination. It sounds like a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too scenario, and it seems unlikely that the denomination will be so accommodating while continuing to expose itself to those fomenting further dissension – a non-starter in other words.
The pastors signing the February 2 letter were criticized for being “a white, male club,” having no signatories who were racial, ethnic, or female. A mea culpa letter on February 7, 2011 tried to smooth ruffled feathers, but it showed how hard backpedaling can be, particularly when you’re just getting started.
Watch for further updates as developments continue.
Local Presbyterian ministers and elders gathered yesterday at Woodlawn Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville to vote on proposed amendments to the church’s Book of Order, one of which addressed a rather old, tiresome and divisive issue, the ordination of gays (Amendment 10-A). As a minister and Presbytery member, I was in attendance.
Geographically, the Presbytery of St. Augustine reaches from Fernandina Beach by the Georgia border to Weirsdale (pictured left) in southernmost Marion County, and spans the state from Perry to Palm Coast in a somewhat diamond shaped region that includes Jacksonville, Gainesville and Ocala.
This is the fourth time that Presbytery commissioners have voted on proposed changes to the Book of Order (a constitutional document for the church) in an attempt to alter the current wording prohibiting ordination of gays. Each of those attempts failed solidly, both in St. Augustine Presbytery as well as in the voting of presbyteries throughout the denomination, the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA). The voting wasn’t very close either.
On Saturday at Woodlawn Presbyterian, the vote came out differently as the proposed amendment passed by an 87-65 margin, marking quite a shift in opinion. Still, 87 of the PCUSA’s 173 presbyteries must also pass the proposed amendment to effect the change.
Ordination of gays has been prohibited one way or another since a 1978 ruling by the PCUSA [GA] Permanent Judicial Commission, essentially the highest church “court.” (A decent presentation of the issue’s long history for the PCUSA can be found here.) An amendment to the Book of Order in 1997 marked a constitutional change since there was no constitutional authority for a judicial commission to establish standards. The 1997 amendment asserts that candidates for ordination must “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness” (G-6.0106B), known simply as the “fidelity-and-chastity clause.”
At the national General Assembly in July, 2010, PCUSA commissioners narrowly approved sending the current proposal to presbyteries for a vote. The substitute language would return the presbyteries to their traditional role of determining the qualifications and suitability of a candidate for ordination. Each presbytery would determine whether someone gets ordained or not, and thus each presbytery would determine whether gays are qualified and suitable, the standard procedure prior to the 1978 ruling. Obviously, this means that some presbyteries may continue to prohibit gays from being ordained while others may decide that sexual orientation is irrelevant to the practice of ordained ministry. It has some similar language with the failed 2008 overture (08-B).
At the St. Augustine Presbytery meeting, there were speakers for and against the amendment before the voting, working within a well-defined format that was designed years ago when the issue seemed destined for frequent revisiting. Quite prescient.
Speakers for the amendment made reference to previous divisive issues like slavery and the ordination of women. While the outcomes of those issues are taken for granted today, their ability to challenge and confound the church at that time was no different from the gay ordination issue today. Personal stories also shared the experience of gay family and colleagues, and how the church’s prohibition indicated the church’s hostility and lack of acceptance of them.
Speakers against the amendment cited scripture passages condemning homosexuality, and expressed their distress about the negative impact this issue has had on the denomination, causing the departure of dozens of churches and pastors. There was a sense that cultural values were superseding biblical values to the detriment of the church, its mission, and its witness to biblical and traditional values in modern society.
Marion County’s Presbyterian pastors tend to be broadly supportive of the change with only a few in opposition. The elders in the churches are another matter.
Voting continues in presbyteries nationwide. By no means is St. Augustine Presbytery’s voting change indicative of a dramatic shift. Central Florida Presbytery (Orlando-Daytona) and Tropical Florida Presbytery (Miami-Dade) both voted about 2 to 1 against the amendment – no surprise. Peace River (Naples-Ft. Myers), Tampa Bay, and Florida (Panhandle) presbyteries have not voted. Most expect Peace River and Tampa to vote against, but Florida’s vote was a narrow “no” like St. Augustine in 2008.
There are early indications that opinion is shifting a bit toward adopting this amendment from the previous round of voting in 2008, enough to tighten the results. A spreadsheet shows the shift in voting between 2008’s Amendment 08-B and 2010’s Amendment 10-A. The 2008 attempt lost 78-94 in the voting of all presbyteries, but only 9 more presbyteries voting affirmatively will pass the 10-A amendment. Of the 48 presbyteries that have voted to date, 3 have flipped from “no” to “yes” while only 1 has flipped from “yes” to “no.”
I’ll be composing a more detailed essay on the issue, the voting, and what either outcome would mean, posting it at Scribd. I’ll put a link here when it’s completed.