A couple of days ago, national news outlets reported that second lady Karen Pence is returning to her job teaching art at Immanuel Christian School, a small, private K-8 school in Springfield, VA, that bars LGBTQ+ staff and students.
The school requires applicants for teacher and staff jobs to accept marriage as "the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive covenant union as delineated in Scripture." In its parent agreement, the school states that it can refuse to admit or expel students who participate in or support "homosexual activity or bi-sexual activity." Immanuel also does not condone premarital sex, identifying as transgender, or "any other violation of the unique roles of male and female."
While this type of policy is not uncommon for a private evangelical Christian institution, the extreme views are far out of touch with those of most Americans. According to a 2017 report by the Public Religion Research Institute, the overwhelming majority of Americans, across all religious groups, support same-sex marriage.
Luke Hartman, an out gay man who graduated from Immanuel, said that his experience affected him profoundly. "I am a living example that intolerance, both in policy and rhetoric, are harmful to the mental wellness and development of LGBTQ students, who are desperately looking for ways to fit in," he said in a statement through The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides crisis and suicide intervention to LGBTQ+ youth. "The silent and spoken messages of rejection that are constantly felt by LGBTQ students directly impact the relationship they have with their faith, education, and relationships with family and friends — ultimately resulting in a feeling of being less than when compared to their straight and cisgender peers."
Doreen Duggan, 27, a friend of Hartman, attended Immanuel from pre-K through 8th grade. She said Immanuel was very small — about 50 kids in each grade — and predominantly white.
Duggan, who was adopted from Chile and describes herself as a "tomboy" when she was growing up, recalls teachers telling her not to play with boys at recess. "I could be having an innocent conversation, and they would say, 'Go play with the girls,'" she told Refinery29. Teachers and staff tried to discourage dating and relationships in the higher grades, even among opposite-sex students, she said.
Marriage was always portrayed as being exclusively between a man and a woman, and the "no premarital sex" message was constantly broadcasted. Duggan said she doesn't remember anyone specifically addressing same-sex relations, but they were also clearly not condoned. She remembers kids in the higher grades being encouraged to go to "purity classes" to pledge their virginity and getting purity rings.
As a mother of two (7 and almost 2), Duggan said she wouldn't send her children to Immanuel. "I would not put my kids in that school as a parent now," she said. "But it really aligned with my parents' morals."
I would not put my kids in that school as a parent now. But it really aligned with my parents' morals.
After Immanuel, Duggan attended the local public school for high school. "I met more people of different races, religions, and sexualities. For me, it was about meeting the people — like, There is no way this person is a bad person. That made what I'd been taught not make sense anymore." She said that while some of her classmates have become more open-minded since graduating, others have turned out just like their ultra-conservative parents.
Duggan said she thinks an environment like Immanuel can hurt kids in the long run. "It worries me for the kids who might be questioning whether they're LGBTQ," she said. "Their parents might not know they're putting their kids in a place that will cause damage. That age range, K through 8, is so pivotal for a child in terms of learning who they are. It has another complex layer when you're raised in an environment of self-hatred, because you're raised that what you are, who you are, is an abomination."
Recent research backs this up. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people, and young lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are over four times more likely to make a suicide attempt than their straight peers. Almost half of all trans people have made a suicide attempt, most before age 25, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) recently released a report that found LGBTQ+ students have experienced increased hostility at their schools in the past two years.
"The Trevor Project hears from young people every day about their experiences with rejection at home and school — places where they should feel the safest," Amit Paley, CEO and executive director of The Trevor Project, said in a statement. "We hope Immanuel Christian School will adopt policies of inclusion for LGBTQ young people that make them feel safe, accepted, and loved."
The Trevor Project has sent 100 copies of A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, an illustrated kids' book that discusses LGBTQ+ acceptance and marriage equality (the Pences published a children's book about Marlon Bundo, their pet rabbit, with two more in the works, and this is the inclusive response) to Immanuel in an effort to encourage the school to change its policies.
"We are not attacking the school," Kevin Wong, head of communications for The Trevor Project, told Refinery29. "We want to prevent young people from attempting suicide, and we know that rejection at home and at school raises the risk factors for suicide attempts. And we want to make sure that everyone knows that being a person of faith and being LGBTQ aren't mutually exclusive."
On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence defended his wife's teaching job, telling EWTN, a Catholic news network, that "to see major news organizations attacking Christian education is deeply offensive to us."
"We have a rich tradition in America of Christian education, and frankly religious education broadly defined," he said. "We'll let the other critics roll off our back, but this criticism of Christian education in America should stop."
What's offensive and absurd is that the Pences are unwilling to examine how those religious beliefs impact young people's lives.
We reached out to Karen Pence's spokesperson Kara Brooks and Immanuel Christian School, and will update this story when we hear back.