See that guy up there? That's Eddie Walker, principal of Irmo High School in Irmo, South Carolina. He's in the middle of a blow up – and has now offered his resignation – over the Equal Access Act.
The Equal Access Act was passed in 1984 and signed into law by Ronald Reagan:
It shall be unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.
So, essentially, it was an equal rights bill, aimed at providing equal access to all groups, regardless of their message. If a school didn't want to have a Christian Alliance, for example, their only recourse would be to not allow any extra-carricular groups at all.
The Equal Access Act was used to protect the rights of students at Westside High School in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1990, a group of students, led by Bridget Mergens tried to start a Bible study club at their school.
The school didn't know what to do, because every club had to have a sponsor, and a sponsored bible study club would imply a state endorsement of Christianity. The obvious dilemma was that to protect some students from a First Amendment violation that would be a de facto endorsement of one religion, they had to violate the First Amendment rights of the other students by denying them the right to practice theirs.
Thus began Westside School District v. Mergens. In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the student's right to assemble and protected their equal access to school facilities. They based this on the Lemon Test, established in Lemon v. Kurtzman, which means that government action must not violate one of three stipulations:
- The government's action must have a secular legislative purpose;
- The government's action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion;
- The government's action must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.
If any of those stipulations are not met, the proposed action is considered to be a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Court found that it did not violate those, reasoning in the decision that “Because the Act on its face grants equal access to both secular and religious speech, we think it clear that the Act's purpose was not to `endorse or disapprove of religion.'''
Now, our boy Eddie Walker is a devout Christian, so one would think that this story would be about starting a Christian group. In this case, though, it is actually a group called the Gay-Straight Alliance, who promote tolerance and dialogue between gay and straight students.
Mr Walker found the formation of the club something he couldn't stomach, and he sent a letter, announcing his resignation as principal of Irmo High School:
On May 14, 2008, I was instructed by email to allow the formation of a Gay/Straight Alliance Club at Irmo High School. On May 15, 2008 I told Ms. Ann Pilat to allow the formation of this club for the 2008-2009 school year.
Allowing the formation of this club on our campus conflicts with my professional beliefs and religious convictions. I considered resigning this year but reconsidered because to not fulfill my written contract for the 2008-2009 school year would also conflict with my professional beliefs and religious convictions. In my opinion failure to fulfill my contract would constitute a breach of trust with School District Five of Lexington and Richland County, my student heroes, returning Irmo High School employees, and new employees who have chosen to work at Irmo High school for the 2008-2009 school year.
The formation of this club conflicts with my professional beliefs in that we do not have other clubs at Irmo High school based on sexual orientation, sexual preference, or sexual activity. In fact our sex education curriculum is abstinence based. I feel the formation of a Gay/Straight Alliance Club at Irmo High school implies that students joining the club will have chosen to or will choose to engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex, opposite sex, or members of both sexes…
…My decision to resign is a personal choice based on my professional beliefs and religious convictions. I have prayed about the decision for a period of time and I have a peace about it. I would ask that you respect my choice as I respect your choice to disagree with me on this issue. I bear no malice towards anyone involved. If the people involved at the district level had chosen not to allow the club to form I am sure the district would have been sued and the current legal opinions and precedents indicate that in all likelihood the district would have lost.
The first thing that strikes me about this letter is that Mr Walker falls into the same trap that many people fall into when discussing homosexuality – it's not about the sex. Well, it's a little about sex, but just like heterosexuality, it is more simply about finding some companionship, finding one's own path to happiness and fufillment.
And a Gay-Straight Alliance isn't about either of those things – it is about love and tolerance and respecting differences. In that end, it is no different than a Christian-Muslim Alliance.
That said, I really have no problem with what Mr Walker is doing. He isn't trying to ram his beliefs down anyone's throat, or using government to force people into his value system. He's just walking away.
I've had arguments with people about other issues – can a pharmacist refuse to fill birth-control prescriptions, even against the will of his employer? Can a worker in the San Diego clerk's office refuse to marry two men?
My answer to these questions has always been, “If you don't like the job description, get another effin job.”
Now that someone is following that advice – no matter how misguided and myopic his opinions – I must respect his choice. After all, isn't that what tolerance is all about?
Thanks to JohnTodd for the tip.Tweet