Like many educational institutions, St. John’s Lutheran School in Baraboo uses federal tax dollars to pay for certain programs, such as free and reduced-price lunches for disadvantaged students.
The funds for those programs are taken from all U.S. taxpayers, without discrimination. And federal civil rights protections say that any student who legally qualifies for the programs can participate, regardless of race, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation.
But taxpayers whose children are homosexual or transgender may not be able to take advantage of those programs, at least not at St. John’s. That’s because officials at the private religious school say they have the right to discipline students for making what they refer to as “sinful choices.”
“I didn’t mean any kind of move around, or to manipulate the law or anything like that,” St. John’s Principal Craig Breitkreutz said about a letter he wrote to parents in February.
In the letter, Breitkreutz outlined new rules that required parents to provide a birth certificate and sign a parent handbook agreement prior to enrollment.
The birth certificate allows the school to know the child’s born gender, and the handbook agreement — which apparently was recommended by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod — lists discretions for which a student can be disciplined and expelled, including homosexuality.
Because the school receives federal funds for its lunch program, transportation and through the No Child Left Behind program, it must comply with civil rights laws, Breitkreutz wrote. That means it can’t deny entry to protected classes, such as homosexual and transgender students.
“If we cannot legally refuse students who are struggling with homosexuality or gender identification, we must maintain our right to hold to the truths of God’s Word,” Breitkreutz wrote. “In other words, although we do not have the right to refuse admittance to people choosing an outwardly sinful lifestyle, we do maintain the right to discipline and dismiss students for these choices.”
A nonprofit group that works to strengthen the separation between religion and government says because the school receives federal funding, its policies are not legal.
“It is problematic for a school that receives federal funds to discriminate against students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Patrick Elliott, an attorney for the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. “Schools that are supported with taxpayer money must comply with minimum civil rights standards. St. John’s Lutheran School has indicated that it will dismiss students on an illegal basis under federal law.”
The Foundation filed a discrimination complaint against the school, saying it discriminates against students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has forwarded the complaint to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.
“As these students are unable to attend the school, they are unable to participate in free and reduced price lunch programs,” the Foundation’s complaint states.
American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Associate Director Molly Collins declined to comment on the St. John’s letter, saying she didn’t have enough information based on the facts that have been presented so far.
Breitkreutz said the school’s policy with regard to homosexual and transgender students is similar to its policies for other behaviors that the church considers sinful, such as cheating or fighting with fellow students.
“We definitely don’t have a goal of finding a way to kick students out,” Breitkreutz said. “I mean, that’s not the goal. The goal is to share with them God’s word.”
The school has not had to discipline a homosexual or transgender student in his two years there, Breitkreutz said. But if a student displayed those tendencies, school officials would try to patiently instruct the child.
If the child was not receptive, and continued to live with a sexual orientation or gender identity that is not endorsed by St. John’s, the school board would have the right to expel that student, Breitkreutz said.
St. John’s Pastor Nick Maglietto said the February letter was intended to let parents know about the church’s views with regard to homosexual and transgender people prior to enrollment.
“So rather than us trying to weed them out, it’s more letting them know where we’re coming from up front and making their choice based on whether this would be an environment for their child,” he said.
Although Maglietto said the school does not intend to exclude people, he said it is “not welcoming” to homosexual and transgender students. But it is the parents’ choice to enroll their child or not.
President Barack Obama recently instructed public schools to allow transgender students the right to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, rather than their birth certificate. Schools that don’t comply may be sued and lose federal funding.
The announcement has added to the ongoing national discussion over transgender rights, and prompted pushback from officials in several states that take issue with the directive.
With regard to the St. John’s letter, the USDA has opened an investigation based on the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s complaint.
“USDA is reviewing this complaint,” said USDA spokeswoman Amanda Heitkamp. “We are firmly committed to ensuring federal protections against discrimination with respect to all of our programs and activities.”
Breitkreutz said if the school’s policies are deemed a violation of civil rights protections, school officials may forego the federal funds, which he said are a great help to many students there.
To parents and others who may question why St. John’s school officials deem themselves worthy of judging others, Breitkreutz said it all comes back to the Bible.
“I certainly don’t want to give anybody the impression that I’m looking down my nose at anybody,” he said. “I try to do everything with humility and love and respect. But we are known by our words and actions, whether or not we hold true to God’s word or not.”
“So rather than us trying to weed them out, it’s more letting them know where we’re coming from up front and making their choice based on whether this would be an environment for their child.” The Rev. Nick Maglietto, St. John’s pastor