Make no mistake: the religious right's smear campaign against Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools director Kevin Jennings is not about Jennings' alleged past actions, or even about the fact that Jennings is gay. It's about a much larger, concerted campaign by the religious right to dismantle the separation of church and state.
How? By using Jennings as part of a long-term political and legal strategy to claim that LGBTQ equality advocacy discriminates against Christians, and deprives them of their constitutional rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.
More on that in a minute, but first a little background on where the Family Research Council's "research" on Jennings comes from. FRC began calling for Jennings' head on June 10, just a few weeks after President Obama appointed him to the post at the Department of Education. But FRC's "research" was not its own; it was based on the rantings of fringe groups Americans for Truth About Homosexuality (AFTAH) and Mission America that date back to the 1990s, when Jennings founded the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
According to its mission statement, GLSEN "envisions a world in which every child learns to respect and accept all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. GLSEN seeks to develop school climates where difference is valued for the positive contribution it makes to creating a more vibrant and diverse community." Awful, huh? (For more on how GLSEN and Jennings himself has advanced this mission, see Emily Douglas' excellent post at The Nation.)
GLSEN's vision is anathema to "Christian" religious-right groups like AFTAH, which has been attacking Jennings for 10 years for allegedly failing to report to law enforcement a teen-aged student's 1988 disclosure that he had sex with an adult man. Last night, CNN reported that the student was 16 years old, the age of legal consent in Massachusetts.
Still, AFTAH and Mission America find other reasons to go after Jennings -- or anyone who advocates for LGBTQ equality. Peter LaBarbera, AFTAH's president, says on the group's Web site that it "seeks to apply the same single-minded determination to opposing the radical homosexual agenda and standing for God-ordained sexuality and the natural family as countless homosexual groups do in promoting their harmful agenda." LaBarbera claims he exposes the evils of groups like GLSEN and homosexuality in general by posting links to photos of "public sex in your neighborhood" that laughably invite readers to click on photos to "enlarge" them. Mission America also has a Jennings dossier on its web site, along with articles fretting about "neo-paganism" and witchcraft's threat to Christianity, and condemning feminist theologians for "goddess worship." Is this the stuff of serious education policy debate?
A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece about the work of the religious right legal group the Alliance Defense Fund in a case in rural Kentucky. ADF represented local pastors and other members of the community in opposing a GLSEN-supported Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at a high school, and then in opposing court-mandated diversity training. They charged that the GSA, and then the training, violated the rights of Christians to preach the gospel -- specifically the parts they claim condemn homosexuality.
Religious-right lawyers have litigated not just cases opposing GSAs but cases in which they claim in other contexts that LGBTQ rights, equality, and dignity somehow impede Christians' rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. This echoes their strategy in the court of public opinion, in which they make the same claims about hate crimes legislation, same-sex marriage, and employment nondiscrimination laws. Supreme Court jurisprudence on church-state separation is slowly being dismantled by the work of these religious-right lawyers, who have succeeded in creating a legal theory of "viewpoint discrimination" against Christians. That's just part of their strategy to dismantle church-state separation, and create a legal environment in which not only can government-sponsored religion (fundamentalist Christianity) be left unchallenged, but in which the rights of others must be subjugated to the free-exercise rights of those Christians.
I still remember interviewing the students who founded the GSA at that rural Kentucky high school, and the fear and intimidation they endured as a protracted community -- and legal -- battle played out. One of them, then in college, said to me, "Who wants to join a club where you would have to explain to your parents, you know, I'm going to be involved in a federal lawsuit because I'm going to be in a club or someone hit me in the head with a can of pop, or someone's going to kill me? No one's going to do that. It's high school."
That's exactly the environment that Jennings sought to change through his work at GLSEN. Now the bullies aren't just at school.
CORRECTION: ADF did not represent the pastors in originally opposing the GSA. It got involved after the case brought by the GSA students against the school was settled, and ADF represented the GSA opponents who objected to the anti-harassment training the court ordered as part of the settlement.
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