Controversy surrounds gay couples' participation in SHS prom
Sullivan High School’s prom is months away, but it has already become the talk of the town.
This year’s annual formal dance, particularly its grand march, has become a hot topic in the community after word spread recently that it might be attended by gay couples.
It’s also prompted a local group to explore the creation of an alternative prom for what it calls “traditional couples,” or boy-and-girl couples. That group has created a Facebook page titled "2013 Sullivan Traditional Prom." One of its administrators has invited “all concerned citizens of Sullivan” to a planning meeting at Sullivan First Christian Church at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday.
The group, in a letter to the Times, said it’s not being judgmental or hateful; instead, it’s just choosing to “not be a part of a school function that goes against what we believe.”
“For most of us it is an issue of our faith and belief in the word of God,” the letter, authored by Tonya Bedwell, reads. “Therefore, we have decided to entertain the idea of having our own Prom — one where we celebrate traditional couples the way we believe God intended relationships to be.”
Word of a gay couple, or couples, attending the prom and participating in grand march spread rapidly when a student-led petition was passed around school requesting that homosexual students be allowed to attend. But school officials say the petition was misguided, in that no student has ever been denied that right. They also stopped its circulation reportedly because it was disrupting the educational process.
“We always encourage all students to get involved or participate in extra-curricular activities, dances or school-related events whether it be SHS or any of our schools,” Southwest School Corp. Superintendent Chris Stitzle said in a statement.
Stitzle, a former SHS principal, said the only time students are denied attendance to school-sponsored activities is for disciplinary reasons, or “if they were not one of our students and did not follow the procedures for being admitted as a guest.”
Bedwell, in her letter, said that the group feels like the SHS student body wasn’t given an opportunity to voice its opinion on the matter. She claims that some students who chose not to sign it were called to the office and told to be quiet about it.
“The school did not allow the community to have a say or an opinion in the matter,” she writes.
But school officials say there is no decision to be made. Stitzle noted that the school has no policy or bylaw pertaining to this matter. He added that throughout the years, codes, laws and courts have shaped and developed specific guidelines for the operation and implementation of policies within schools.
For example, federal courts have ruled that any policy excluding same-sex couples from proms or school dances violates the right to free expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. One decision, in 1980 by the U.S. District Court of Rhode Island, upheld the right of a gay student to bring a same-sex date to a high school dance.
The Sullivan County Clergy Association is not commenting on the matter, according to John Moyer, its president. However, local church leaders, speaking individually, have differing views.
“In my opinion, this is clearly a civil rights issue,” said Paul McGlasson, of Sullivan’s First Presbyterian Church. “I believe that the Christian gospel affirms the full civil rights of homosexuals as of all people, period. After all, Jesus said, ‘Do not judge lest you be judged.’”
McGlasson said this is not an issue of liberal versus conservative. In fact, he said, the mainstream of historic orthodox Christianity, including Protestant denominations, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, supports the full civil rights of all people, including homosexuals.
While McGlasson and others share that view, there are others who don’t.
“Christians have stood by and let things happen far too long,” said Rev. Gary Larimer, of Sullivan Wesleyan Church. “I feel it’s time to turn over the tables.”
Referencing a Biblical story, Larimer said that Jesus loved the people, but he didn’t love the sin that they were in.
“The issue with same-sex couples parading themselves at the grand march is wrong,” he said. “Christians are to love the couples, not the sin that they are in. I understand that this may be a civil rights issue, but that still doesn’t make it right.”
Larimer said he believes the school has choices in the matter, such as talking with the couples and letting them know it will upset others, or just not having a grand march at all.
Since the matter went public, residents have taken to social media or Internet forums, by name and anonymously, to give their opinions. Some of the discussion has been civil, but some has not.
“We do not condone bullying on either side,” Bedwell wrote on behalf of the group exploring a separate prom. “We disapprove of all name calling and cyberbullying and threats of physical violence.”
The SHS prom is scheduled for April 27, with sign-up dates upcoming.