School's back in session at Lake Washington High School in Kirkland.
The 1,300 students are busier than ever. The tennis, golf, volleyball, and cross-country teams are practicing nearly every day after school. A few kids have met to plan this year's literary magazine, the Mirror, while others have submitted applications to join the newspaper staff. Some juniors and seniors are polishing off their National Honor Society applications. Other kids are collecting hurricane-relief money—Starbucks is going to match the dollars they raise.
On September 9, a drizzly Friday night, hundreds of students—most wearing purple and white, the school colors, somewhere on their bodies—crammed into the school's stadium bleachers to cheer their football team, the Kangaroos, to victory during the first home game of the season.
Like the rest of their classmates, the kids in the Lake Washington High School Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) recently kicked off their year. More than 50 kids met for the first time this fall after school on Monday, September 19, in their advisor's classroom. But unlike other students at Lake Washington—most of whom are looking ahead—the kids in the GSA spent their first meeting rehashing a controversial issue from last spring: An anti-gay, conservative Eastside church—Antioch Bible Church—had become a political heavyweight.
Antioch is headed up by conservative evangelical minister and media hog Ken Hutcherson, who's garnered plenty of attention in the past two years with his well-publicized anti-gay activism. An African American and a former Seahawks linebacker, Hutcherson led 2004's Mayday for Marriage rally at Safeco Field, where 20,000 people gathered to protest same-sex marriage. (The Stranger hired an airplane to pull a banner over the ballpark during the rally that read, "The Stranger Says Get Out of Our Ballpark Bigots!") Hutcherson claims to have several "former homosexuals" in his congregation, and he boasts of his frequent meetings with George W. Bush. He is also a loud critic of anyone who dares compare the current gay rights movement with the civil rights movement in the '60s. Last spring he took credit for lobbying Microsoft until it pulled support of an antidiscrimination bill in the state legislature. The bill failed by one vote.
Why did the LWHS's GSA—one of the school's most popular clubs, counting dozens of members—spend so much of its first meeting discussing Hutcherson? Because Hutcherson's church meets every Sunday in their school's gym. Their school's principal, Mark Robertson, showed up to talk about Antioch too. Who better to broach the complicated, touchy subject than the school's principal? After all, he's a member of the controversial church.
Early every Sunday morning at Lake Washington High School, several trailers pull up outside the gym and start unloading choir risers, AV equipment, and a pulpit. Transforming the school's gym—with its gigantic Kangaroo murals on the walls—into a church for a few thousand worshipers every week is no small feat.
The arrangement not only blurs the line separating church and state, but it also seems to dance all over the Eastside school district's own antidiscrimination policies. Hutcherson's strong political stance against same-sex marriage and his comments about "ex gays" in his congregation make the teachers' union president, along with many teachers and students, uncomfortable. Understandably the GSA members—and their friends—aren't happy that Hutcherson calls their school home. Several club members sent a letter to the church last spring saying as much but received no answer.
When Hutcherson's role in Microsoft's reversal on the state antidiscrimination bill came to light (Sandeep Kaushik broke the story in the April 21 Stranger and it then landed on the front page of the New York Times two days later), Lake Washington High School's name appeared alongside Hutcherson's inflammatory, anti-gay rhetoric, incensing the school's progressive teachers and staff. On May 18, Lake Washington Education Association president Kevin Teeley called Hutcherson a "bigoted pastor" in the union's newsletter. "[Hutcherson's] actions and words only serve to promote a climate of hate and intolerance in our community," union head Teeley wrote, speaking for the teachers, pointing out that the church meeting at Lake Washington High School was tainting the school's otherwise inclusive reputation. "We hope that widespread public pressure will result in him taking his hate speech out of our public schools."
The problem is, it's perfectly legal for the church to hold services in the public school's gym. State law requires public school districts to rent their facilities to community groups, including churches, when they aren't being used for student-related activities. Antioch's rental puts $140,000 in the district's coffers each year.
More distressingly, the presence of Antioch Bible Church on campus isn't the only separation-of-church-and-state issue the school has confronted recently. As The Stranger reported last spring, Eastside mom Jessica Grady has been battling the Lake Washington School District over its abstinence-only sex education program. The district offers a comprehensive sex ed program, which is supplemented by an abstinence presentation from a group called SHARE—an affiliate of the religiously based group Life Choices, which runs anti-abortion "crisis pregnancy clinics" throughout the region. The SHARE lecture is taught by volunteers, some of whom are recruited from Antioch.
Then on June 2, the youngest students at Lake Washington High School—those who attend an affiliated preschool program, Little Roos—received a copy of 10 commandments at their graduation. The commandments weren't the ones from the Bible, but they were religiously loaded, instructing parents to "please take me to church regularly" and to realize their kids are "a special gift from God."
The creeping presence of religion in a public school like Lake Washington High School is evidence of the successful national conservative movement to push religion into public life. From President Bush to Senator Rick Santorum, conservatives want to impose a national religion on the United States. In order to accomplish this, they need to irradiate the concept of separation: "The phrase 'wall of separation,' cited so frequently as an almost sacred text in most of these Supreme Court decisions [concerning religion in the public square], is not a phrase used in the U.S. Constitution," Sen. Santorum writes in his recent book, It Takes a Family. Santorum gets particularly worked up over a 1947 Supreme Court decision—concerning whether taxes could pay for parochial-school students' bus service—that called for the "wall between Church and State" to be "kept high and impregnable."
Since that decision, Santorum argues, courts have repeatedly upheld a separation of church and state not found in the original constitution, yanking prayer from public schools, keeping taxpayer funding away from sectarian organizations, and recently ruling the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional due to the presence of the phrase "under God."
"The overarching impulse of the Court's position has been to drive religion from the public square," Santorum complains, "to secularize our society from the roots up, all in the name of the constitutional principle of 'neutrality'—both among religions and between religion and irreligion."
Santorum captures the persecution complex that currently grips the religious right: "But [what] about religious youngsters who find themselves in a public school hermetically sealed off from all religious influences? Would not the school, and therefore the government, tacitly be communicating to religious youngsters that prayer, religion, and faith are not really welcome in America's public square? That is where we have ended up: Court-sanctioned hostility to religious influence in American society, all in the name of neutrality."
So conservatives are fighting back, doing all they can to inject religion into public life—especially into schools. Religious conservatives have repackaged creationism as "intelligent design," debasing science curriculums, and in the past five years, the federal government has spent $1 billion on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs—programs typically run by religious organizations, and which also include false statistics on the effectiveness of condoms and ignore homosexuality entirely. Conservative groups are trying to prevent gay student groups from forming or meeting in Florida, Georgia, and Minnesota.
In the current political climate, it's hard not to see Antioch's presence at Lake Washington High School as an intentional provocation, another front in the war to get religion into public schools. The congregation—founded in 1984—gets to meet in an otherwise secular, publicly funded institution while renting modest office space in an industrial park a few miles away. "I really question what the church is doing with the money they're saving by not building their own church," asks teachers' union head Teeley.
Two days after Lake Washington High School's first home football game, I trekked back to the sprawling suburban campus. Just as it had been on Friday night, the parking lot was packed. This time, though, Kangaroo-themed car décor ("Class of 2006!!") had given way to politically conservative bumper stickers.
Inside the gym, Antioch's parishioners settle in for church. The congregation comprises an impressive cross-section, including East African and Southeast Asian families chatting, black teenage boys converging on a few rows of bleachers, a middle-aged white guy with chunky facial piercings sitting with two kids who are doodling, couples toting infants and toddlers searching for empty chairs on the basketball court, and young single people grabbing whatever space is left over. Before services start, many of them break out bibles and flip to today's passage.
Hutcherson, a towering guy with a trim white beard, is hard to miss at the back of the gym, where he's waiting for his cue. Up front, a different pastor runs through a list of announcements—he highlights a ministry fair happening just down the hall in the cafeteria—as the church's choir starts filtering into the risers set up just behind Hutcherson's translucent pulpit and below a large projection screen.
After a long set of gospel tunes, plus commercials for an upcoming women's retreat and Hutcherson's relationship classes on the screen, Hutcherson takes the stage. But it's not time for his official sermon, which will cover Matthew 16, the program says. This is just his warm up.
He calls up a middle-aged white couple, each clutching a black infant—twins, Hutcherson says, whose adoption through Antioch's program will be final the next day. He says he hopes to spread Antioch's free-to-Christian-homes adoption model around the country, to put other agencies out of business. He implores the congregation's women to sign up for the next weekend's retreat ("Your families can get along without you for a few days. If your husband doesn't agree, we can talk to him."). He tells the congregation that the choir director was recently hired at Seattle Pacific University, and he announces a new minister joining Antioch's upper management. All of this is done in "Hutch" style: The pastor wanders the aisles, shaking hands, doling out frequent, patronizing jokes—during which he repeatedly pauses to remind himself that he's talking "to an Eastside crowd," and therefore has to translate his black-guy-from-Alabama vocabulary into something white, middle-class folks will understand. Everybody laughs.
Then, he makes his pitch. Hutcherson has big dreams for Antioch's growth and influence in the world. He urges people to join his Prayer Warriors e-mail list, a group that prays on the news he sends out about national political issues. He wants 2,000 people on the list "by Jesus' birthday." But he lays out the political agenda in the vaguest terms, saying things like "we'll continue to defend marriage," instead of degrading gays. And he announces he's headed to D.C. the following week to meet with President Bush and share his thoughts on national politics.
The school district says it's doing its best to keep church and school separate. District spokesperson Kathryn Reith states firmly that Antioch's use of school facilities on Sundays "should be separate from what happens during the school day."
After the Microsoft controversy last spring, the district worked during the summer to clear up any lingering ambiguities. As far as the SHARE sex-education component is concerned, no student will attend the religiously based SHARE lecture unless a parent signs him or her up. That's the way SHARE lectures are supposed to work in the district. But Reith says that in the years since parents requested an optional abstinence-only program, "Some [schools] have made it opt-out," putting the burden on parents to request that their child sit in the library during the SHARE program. Over the summer, Lake Washington School District Superintendent Don Saul "has reiterated that it has to be opt-in," Reith says.
As for the 10 commandments passed out at the preschool graduation, district administrators discussed the problem with the program administrator once she returned from her summer vacation. They pointed out that some of the language in the treacly missive was inappropriate in a public-school setting. "She has been instructed that she will not use it in the future, and she has agreed not to use it," says Reith.
When it came to Antioch's rental, there were administrative problems. "The person who's been doing the building-use rental was an instructional assistant who wasn't perceived as having the final say," Reith explains. Though the principal, who attends the church, wasn't overseeing the rental directly, "[Principal] Mark Robertson has been aware that there could be a perception of a conflict of interest."
So the district shifted oversight of Antioch's rental to Lake Washington High School Associate Principal Doug Wenk. "He will handle all of those details," Reith explains, including mediating the concerns of teachers who felt they couldn't bring their complaints to Robertson. Lastly, the district is reviewing all of its rental agreements, to be sure hours are properly tracked, and that everyone is following the rental policies.
Reith has been dealing with these issues since she took the district's top communication position at the beginning of the summer—just after Hutcherson's use of the Lake Washington High School was in the news. "There is certainly a concern on the part of community members," she says. "We're trying to be responsive. Obviously we have some limits on what we can and can't do. At the same time, we don't want the use of our buildings to negatively affect what happens in the classroom during the school week."
That leaves one issue, an issue that the district may not be able to solve: "[Antioch] is still in violation of school-district policy and the school's own handbook," contends teachers' union president Teeley. He's concerned that even if the district follows its rental policies to the letter and patches up any conflict-of-interest problems with Robertson at Lake Washington High School, there's still a larger problem. The Lake Washington School District has a clear nondiscrimination policy that includes protection for sexual orientation. Teeley—and some Lake Washington High School teachers—believes that Antioch's presence on Sundays violates the spirit of that policy.
The school district may not be able to kick the church out, but Teeley has another idea: "I believe the school board should pass a resolution condemning the beliefs of this church, and disassociating themselves from it, and saying that they do not condone these practices and these discriminatory beliefs," he says.
"As far as I can tell, most of the student body seems unaware, or [they] just don't care about it," a Lake Washington High School junior told me when I asked him about the church (he requested anonymity). "I've never heard students standing in the hall talking about it or discussing it over lunch."
His comments seem to be representative of most Lake Washington students. The students I spoke to said the church is only there one day a week, and the times the church meets don't overlap with student activities, so most kids really don't give it a second thought. Hutcherson and Antioch don't reflect what their school is really about, the students say. (Indeed, a few students got defensive when I asked about Antioch, telling me that some students—and teachers—deemed the media scrutiny of Antioch and the Lake Washington School District far more damaging than Hutcherson's weekly visits.)
Members of the GSA, not surprisingly, are more sensitive to the issue than other students. "I first heard about the church when I was at junior high last year, and I was pretty shocked," says 16-year-old Lake Washington sophomore Monica, a member of the GSA and the drama club. "It almost made me not want to go to Lake Washington.... I know I can't change people's minds about not liking gays or anyone else queer, especially since that's part of their religion, but I don't think it should be associated in any way with a public school."
Lauren Hruska, a junior at Lake Washington High School and one of the GSA's straight members, knew Antioch met at her school but didn't give it a second thought until her mom told her "it is very anti-gay," she says. "That made me mad... I have gay friends, there is nothing wrong with them, and they're normal people too. And I wish everyone knew that." Antioch's presence at her school is especially upsetting, she says, because her classmates are "a pretty open minded bunch."
The GSA took some action last year, when Hutcherson and his church's relationship with Lake Washington High School was in the news "and affected us as a school publicity-wise," explains senior Amy Ito. "We had one member of the club, who is also a Christian, write a letter, and most of us signed it in support."
The school's principal, Mark Robertson—a member of Antioch church—joined the GSA's meeting on Monday, September 19 to talk about Antioch. Robertson made it clear, students who attended the meeting said, that Hutcherson's views on gays did not reflect those of Lake Washington High School—or his views, students later explained. He pointed out that he helped students start the GSA a few years ago. "He was there for the whole meeting. It was pretty cool," says sophomore Monica. "We just talked about everything that's going on around the school with the church and how it's been on the news a lot. He's been really supportive of the GSA ever since it started. He's not, like, homophobic or anything, even though the leader of his church is."
Robertson may have calmed his students, but The Stranger still had a few questions for him. After all, he's the man caught in the middle. For starters, why should students—especially those in the GSA—believe that Robertson is on their side, not his pastor's, when it comes to things like nondiscrimination? After all, doesn't Robertson spend his Sundays at a church that has demonized gay marriage? And if he does side with LWHS's GSA—if he believes gays and lesbians should be treated as full and equal citizens—why not say so publicly, contradicting Hutcherson's political rhetoric? Or why not leave Hutcherson's church altogether?
Robertson declined to answer the questions, says Reith. "He's reluctant to talk about his personal religious beliefs," she explained, given that the issue at hand is separation of church and state. Robertson—conveniently ignoring the fact that his membership at such an outspoken church has made the issue unavoidable—kept his principal hat on, and wrote a statement explaining his inclusive school leadership philosophy. He says he's "guided by my ancestry... because I have been raised in an African American family whose ancestry has suffered through generations of slavery and oppression."
"I have a statement of philosophy and guiding beliefs," Robertson wrote. "'To demonstrate through my actions a philosophy of inclusivity, where everyone feels a sense of worth, value, support, and safety in their attainment of the necessary skills to be successful and where the goals that lead the organization are supported by trust, cooperation, unity, determination, and respect.'"