Are Church and State Getting Too Close at Kirkland’s Lake Washington High School?
Jack Herbert is a 27-year-old virgin, and he's not embarrassed to talk about it. In fact, he's spent the last two years telling teens that choosing abstinence is a sure way to avoid pregnancy and STDs. "I've been abstinent my whole life," Herbert, a volunteer sex-ed lecturer in local schools, is fond of telling students. "You don't have to worry about pregnancy if you're abstinent."
Herbert is not, however, fond of telling people (specifically, a reporter from The Stranger) that he attends Antioch Bible Church-the oft-controversial Eastside evangelical congregation, headed up by outspoken pastor Ken Hutcherson, who's nabbed headlines for organizing an anti-gay marriage rally at Safeco Field, and for bullying Microsoft into pulling support from an anti-gay discrimination bill.
Herbert-who had no problem talking about a gay relative, his mom, or his dream to get married soon-stopped cold when asked about his church affiliation. He says his relationship with Antioch isn't relevant to his work as a volunteer abstinence advocate, and he'd rather it not be mentioned. It's also irrelevant, he thinks, that the group he volunteers for to lecture in public schools, SHARE, is faith based. "I never mention god, I never mention my faith," says Herbert. "When I walk in those doors, I'm not there to preach about my religion. I am baffled by the fact that people are so caught up with the fact that we are faith based."
But Herbert's connections to both SHARE-the faith-based sex-ed volunteer group-and Antioch are about to become hyper-relevant. Lake Washington High School, where Herbert volunteers and where Antioch rents space for its Sunday services, is ground zero for an issue playing out across the country-the debate over the role of faith in the public square, whether in politics or in schools.
"The fingerprints of [Antioch] church are all over that school," says Kevin Teeley, present of the teacher's union in the Lake Washington School District. And next year, when the district's sex-ed curriculum-including SHARE's supplementary role lecturing about abstinence-are up for review, Teeley predicts Hutcherson and others at Antioch "are going to try to heavily influence what [the sex-ed program] looks like," Teeley says. "This is going to be the big controversial topic."
The Eastside sex-ed controversy is part of a current national showdown in the public schools, where the political-and religious-right is gaining influence. A June 9 New York Times story, for example, detailed conservative efforts from Maryland to Georgia to disband gay student clubs or block sex-ed courses that mention homosexuality. Lake Washington High School seems like the next setting for the coming sex-ed controversy, especially given the events that have taken place there over the last few months.
First, Teeley, in a May 18 newsletter, questioned Antioch Bible Church's weekly rental of the public school's gym and many of its classrooms. The union president also referred to Hutcherson as a "bigoted pastor," a comment that resulted in a heated face-off between Hutcherson and Teeley on AM 820 Christian talk radio. "[Hutcherson's] actions and words only serve to promote a climate of hate and intolerance in our community," Teeley wrote. "We hope that widespread public pressure will result in him taking his hate speech out of our public schools."
Then recent news reports indicated that Mark Robertson, principal of the high school, attends Hutcherson's church. While a principal's private religious life shouldn't matter, in Lake Washington High's case, it means many teachers feel like they can't bring forth their concerns about Antioch's relationship with the school. (One concern: Students, especially Lake Washington High School's gay students, "should be able to come to this school seven days a week and feel safe," one teacher said, worried that Antioch and Hutcherson's presence in the building on Sundays precluded that. "I'd go to [the principal] in a minute," to bring that up, the teacher said, if he didn't attend Antioch.) Antioch also sponsors an annual luncheon for teachers at the school, with Hutcherson often presiding, Teeley says. "It's one of those things where they're not required to go, but if your boss says come to this luncheon and he's a member of that church," it's hard to turn down, Teeley says.
Meanwhile, a group of parents have raised concerns about SHARE's abstinence lecture. One parent, Jessica Grady, has been trying to sit in on SHARE's presentation to see it for herself-she believes the material is riddled with inaccuracies, and she's skeptical about the intentions of the volunteers ["Parental Dissent," Amy Jenniges, May 26]. "It's entirely inappropriate," to have a faith-based group in the school, says Grady. "Just because the majority of Americans are Christians doesn't mean we all are." She's appalled by the "bold confidence" of those who thrust their religious beliefs into public policy. "It's scary and sad."
School officials danced around Grady's explicit requests to attend the lecture, blocked her from sitting in when she showed up anyway, and later said she didn't have permission. Grady sent a follow-up letter to the school's vice principal on May 27 after The Stranger wrote about her struggle, still demanding an explanation. "I don't understand why I was not granted permission to sit in on the SHARE presentation... and why my written request to visit the classroom was ignored," Grady wrote. She hasn't gotten an answer.
Herbert, the SHARE volunteer, says he welcomes parents to sit in. "When I found out after the presentation that they weren't able to view it, I thought that was a bummer," he says. After all, he's got nothing to hide, and he stands by his curriculum's accuracy. He's simply trying to lower teenage pregnancy and STDs rates by teaching students the three Rs-"responsibility, respect, and restraint." He says he doesn't bring a fourth R-religion-into the classroom, and student evaluations of his lectures back him up. "I've had students that say, 'I'm sexually active, I'll continue to be, and I appreciate the fact that you didn't judge me,'" Herbert says proudly.
Herbert, however, taking a page out of the Christian right's persecution complex handbook, thinks the real issue in the Lake Washington School District these days isn't the sex-ed program, or his abstinence presentation-it's discrimination against people with a Christian "worldview," as he calls it, like himself. "The controversy is that we're faith based," Herbert says. "They're slamming us on one end, in an attempt to invalidate our ability to be in the public schools. And they're attempting to discredit us," says Herbert. "They do that because they have a problem with the faith. If you have a problem with the faith, just come out and say it."
COLUMBIA CITY: Folks in Columbia City report that the city's much ballyhooed wi-fi program-the $115,000 pilot project is supposed to blanket the entire business district with a free internet signal-isn't working. Tech-minded neighbor Jason MacLeod says people have to park in front of the bookstore where one wi-fi antenna is based "to just check e-mail!!!" City workers are "installing upgraded antenna" in three spots this week to boost the signal. A tree, apparently, was causing interference. CAPITOL HILL: The city council unanimously approved a height increase for ailing Broadway, paving the way for redevelopment of the strip's numerous vacant properties. Hooray! FREMONT: A group of "piercing suspension" enthusiasts-they rig themselves up with hooks through their skin-wanted to be in this year's Solstice Parade. They were in it last year, but the neighborhood's arts council said not this time. "But they're okay with the naked bicyclists. How is this fair?" asks Xavier Frost, a member of the group. PIKE PLACE MARKET: "Help us save the webcam! E-mail us now!" begs the homepage for Pike Place Fish Market Inc-AKA, the infamous fish throwers. The market's historical commission denied their recent request to install two webcams to catch all the fishy antics, citing a guideline that limits market shops to "uses that serve local shoppers, over those that are primarily tourist oriented." The issue goes before the city's hearing examiner on June 17. -AJ