by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."... ...H.L. Mencken.
Commentary of the Day - April 14, 2004: Standing Up to the Ayatollahs of Westminster.
For the past few months the citizens of Westminster, CA have been at war with three members of the five-member Westminster School District board of trustees. These three trustees have refused to implement a 1999 California law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, sex, or sexual orientation.
The current district policy mentions only discrimination on the basis of gender, while state law requires that all three terms be included in the district's anti-discrimination policy. The three board members who are resisting the change, Helena Rutkowski, Judy Ahrens and Blossie Marquez-Woodcock, all are conservative Christians who feel that the state policy is somehow immoral because it would allow students to define their own gender. That, in turn, might be a slippery slope that would allow some self-identified, transgendered, fifth-grade male student to use the girls' rest room. And, of course, such a policy might lead to the discussion of homosexuality and other nasty topics in the classroom. And, furthermore, that would violate biblical principles, so it can't be allowed regardless of what the state law says.
By taking their stand the board majority has imperiled funding for the district. California Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O'Connell is holding up close to $8 million in state funds for the district because it is out of compliance with state law; and, the Bank of America is holding up a multi-million dollar line of credit for the district because state funding is now uncertain. The three recalcitrant board members recently fired the attorney who had represented the district for many years, and replaced him with Mark Bucher -- the founder of the something called the Education Alliance. This group in recent years has run a number of stealth campaigns on behalf of fundamentalist Christians who were attempting to take over school boards in a several Orange County cities. With the support of Bucher these three board members recently rewrote the district's anti-discrimination policy to bring it closer to the requirements of state law, but the new policy -- because it does not address sexual orientation -- remains out of compliance with the state law.
What is turning out to be remarkable about this case is not the stand that the three board members have taken, but rather the response of the community to their stand. Decades ago Westminster was a sleepy, conservative, bedroom community that was home to mostly middle-class, white families. A controversy like the present one most likely would have generated substantial public support for the position taken by the three board members. After all, the Westminster schools were segregated (Latinos were not allowed to attend the same schools as Anglo children) up until 1946, when the district lost a desegregation case in the U.S. Supreme Court.
However, times have changed even in conservative Orange County. Westminster now has a population nearing 90,000 souls, 40% of whom are of Asian descent. While hardly a liberal enclave, Westminster citizens today are much less likely to support narrow-minded discriminatory policies, particularly when those policies place the education of their children in jeopardy. The great majority of parents attending recent board meetings have taken the three board members to task for holding the children in the district hostage to narrow religious doctrines. A recall movement has been started to remove two of the three board members from office (the third trustee's term is expiring so she will have to stand for election in November).
Even more encouraging is the attitude expressed by many citizens who share at least some of the religious views of the three school board members. These folks have suggested that if the three trustees disagree with the state law they should work to have it modified or overturned in the legislature, rather than taking matters into their own hands and consequently costing the district millions of dollars in funding. Some have even said that if the board members cannot in good conscience go along with the state law, they should resign their positions.
The Irascible Professor thinks that the citizens of Westminster have it right this time. Those three board members are entitled to their religious views, but they don't have the right to impose them on the community at large.
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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.