“I think the reason the Christian community is really getting involved is we want equal time,” a parent told the Star Tribune in 1992 over the then-brewing debate about whether the Anoka-Hennepin School District should teach that the earth was created in six days. That battle two decades ago mirrors one being fought today over LGBT issues. As Minnesota’s largest district becomes more diverse, conservative Christians have fought to keep their values a dominant force there through tactics including the banning of books and films, changes to school curriculum, and the forced resignation of an LGBT teacher.
The early 1990s: Creationism and R-rated films
The 1992 flap over whether the district should teach creationism alongside evolution came when a handful of parents on the district’s curriculum committee targeted the school’s science standards. Mark Temke, a school board member at the time, sided with the minority on that committee.
“Scientifically, if somebody told me I was a descendant of an ape, I would say, ‘Then why are there still apes?’” he said at a 1992 board meeting. “I disagree with that wholeheartedly. I don’t believe for one minute that I’m a descendant of anything of the kind. And there is no proof for it, either.”
He added, “There is not one minute of my entire life I’ve ever believed in evolution.”
Ultimately, the board upheld the teaching of evolution, but it directed teachers to be sensitive to Christian students.
In 1995, Temke was also behind a move to edit R-rated films shown in district schools to remove “vulgar or profane language, nudity, sexual[ly] explicit scenes or violence which are deemed to be educationally unsuitable.”
“The goal was to eliminate R-rated material from the schools, and we’ve accomplished that,” he told the Star Tribune. “So to say that an R-rated film will be shown is not true — after the editing, it will be G.”
In the early 1990s, conservative Christian parents also mounted a campaign to enact an abstinence-only until marriage sex education curriculum but were rebuffed by the school board.
The 1995 “no promo homo” policy
Also in 1995, the district adopted a policy that directed that “while respect be maintained toward all people, homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle and that the district staff and their resources not advocate the homosexual lifestyle.”
That policy was a precursor to the less discriminatory “neutrality policy” which is the target of a lawsuit filed in July of this year. That suit, brought by six current and former students, alleged that the policy creates a hostile climate for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual students.
“I believe we have to set a standard and it has to be the right standard,” Temke, who was again at the heart of the controversy, said at a 1995 school board meeting. “We are not interested in putting anybody down. But we want to recommend marriage and a healthy lifestyle.”
Gwen Moore, a parent of the district, said at the time, “It is difficult to teach without values. I’d like my values taught instead of someone else’s.”
The policy was created by a handful of parents on the curriculum committee. Of 25 parents who helped evaluate the curriculum, only five recommended the changes.
In addition to the policy on homosexuality, those parents also included language for health education classes that directed that “sodomy and masturbation not be discussed in any elementary classroom. Elementary students raising questions on these issues will be referred to their parents.” It also required that “all sex education curriculum will emphasize the positive advantages of saving sex for monogamous heterosexual marriage.”
Enter Barb Anderson
Book banning was also a cause for conservative Christian parents.
In 1997, Barb Anderson (pictured, right), a parent who had moved her children to private school, helped get the “Goosebumps” series of children’s books removed from Anoka-Hennepin libraries and classrooms. The controversy made the pages of the New York Times that year.
“I’m just amazed and appalled that the only way you people can get your children to read books is to let them read this type of garbage,” she told the Times.
Anderson, who has worked for the Minnesota Family Council for more than a decade, also helped found the Parents Action League in 2009, a group that has opposed Gay-Straight Alliances and diversity training in the district and that wants “ex-gay” therapy taught in the schools.
The resignation of Alyssa Williams and the rise of Parents in Touch
The Family Council has been no stranger to the raging debates in the district. It was involved in perhaps one of the most contentious issues for the district: When Alyssa Williams was hired to be a part-time music teacher in 1998 and 1999.
Once conservative Christian parents learned that Alyssa was transgender, they launched a campaign called “Parents in Touch” to have her removed from the classroom.
Sandy Crosby, a spokesperson for Parents in Touch, told the Star Tribune, “For them to have special privileges like blacks or Native Americans, that’s just a bunch of fill in the blank. When it comes to this sexual diversity, that is not OK and we don’t want it in our schools.”
Parents in Touch recruited 30 local pastors to put pressure on the school board. The pastors, calling themselves Concerned Pastors of the District 11 Community, wrote a letter to the district arguing that hiring Williams showed “a great disregard for Judeo-Christian values.”
“It’s a sin against God,” district parent Tanna Whiteford told the Star Tribune in 1998. “As a Christian family, we teach our children that this is wrong. I can deal with it at work if there’s someone there like that, but this is in the school. When do we get to say, ‘No?’ ”
Parents in Touch also recruited the help of the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal group founded by televangelist Pat Robertson of the 700 Club. ACLJ threatened to sue the district over Williams’ hiring and the accommodations the district made for her.
Parents in Touch comprised about three dozen parents. Of Williams’ 445 students, only 25 were pulled from her classroom by parents who opposed her hiring.
Some parents, however, were appalled by the behavior of the conservative Christian parents.
“When I got home I told my husband, ‘I have never before experienced true prejudice in my life until tonight,”‘ one parent, who declined to use her real name, told the Star Tribune after a parent meeting about Williams. “I didn’t know people could be so mean.”
As the controversy raged, the Minnesota Family Council jumped into the fray, calling on legislators to repeal the Minnesota Human Rights Act. Passed in 1993, the measure made it illegal to fire individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Family Council issued a press release saying that it objected to the school district “promoting particular sexual lifestyles” and “men dressing as women in our public schools.”
The campaign worked, and in early 1999 Williams resigned. She didn’t cite a reason, but in an interview with the Los Angeles Times later, Williams said the parents “worked tirelessly to get rid of me. They do not want to accept that I exist.”
The 2000s: The Minnesota Family Council takes on the district
Anderson and the Minnesota Family Council have been behind other instances of controversy in the district.
In early 2002, Anderson was shocked to see a poster hanging in the Champlin Park High School that offered “a toll-free resource, referral and counseling service” to LGBT students. The poster included a number, 1-877-GLBT-543, and was paid for “by The State Of Minnesota and the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.”
Having come to the school to vote, Anderson was incensed. “I was unprepared to be faced with another issue altogether — a homosexual propaganda poster on the main bulletin board by the administration office,” she wrote on the Minnesota Family Council’s website.
She called the school’s principal. “I briefly expressed my reasons as to why this poster was a propaganda piece and that without parental knowledge or consent, students calling this number could be indoctrinated into the homosexual lifestyle, referred to homosexual support groups, used for political purposes or put at risk for being affirmed in unhealthy and dangerous behaviors. My concerns did not fall on deaf ears.”
The poster was removed. Anderson said she reminded the principal of the 1995 policy prohibiting positive references to LGBT people and issues. Then she pushed to have a different kind of poster put up in its place.
“I asked if it would be possible to put up a new poster from an organization that could help students struggling with same-sex attraction to come out of the homosexual lifestyle – such as Outpost or Exodus International,” she wrote. The principal insisted that no posters be shown that involve LGBT issues from either side.
Of the ordeal, Anderson said, “I am very thankful that students will no longer be greeted by a homosexual advocacy poster when they walk into Champlin Park High School.”
Anderson and the Family Council continued to push back against safe schools initiatives in late 2002. She succeeded in getting a seminar for district staff called “Understanding Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Youth” postponed.
On November 15th, I received an e-mail from Superintendent Roger Giroux stating, “Staff will ensure that the focus and agenda of the teacher workshop will center on addressing the needs of students at risk. There are no changes in school board guidelines, policies and/or directives from previous years. Staff will work to ensure consistency of workshop content with school board guidelines, policies, and directives. The school district does not promote gay/straight alliances in schools.”
But, to Anderson’s dismay, “the seminar went forward with the agenda of affirming and advocating homosexuality as a normal, valid lifestyle and making it clear that anyone who does not agree is homophobic.”
She wrote on the Minnesota Family Council’s website that the district was not following its 1995 directive that “homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle.”
“The greatest harm, however, comes to the young people who will receive this information and be affirmed in school district gay/straight alliances (already in place) as to whatever sexual behavior they feel is right for them: gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender,” she wrote.
That 1995 policy was scrapped in 2009 and replaced with the “neutrality policy,” which states that discussions of LGBT issues are best left to parents, churches and community groups and should not be taught in district classrooms.
The policy has sparked protest in the district on both sides. LGBT allies in the district say the policy hampers anti-bulling efforts and alienates LGBT students. And six students have filed suit against the district alleging widespread harassment.
PAL claims that without the policy, students will be indoctrinated with the “gay agenda.”
The school board has insisted that, at least for now, the policy will remain in place.