When Karen Pence announced she had accepted a part-time job at Immanuel Christian School, there followed what in hindsight was a foreseeable national uproar. Immanuel Christian requires employees to sign a pledge promising to, among other things, avoid “moral misconduct” that includes “homosexual or lesbian sexual activity, polygamy, transgender identity…. and any other violation of the unique roles of male and female.” The hashtag #exposeChristianschools immediately trended on Twitter, and soon Mike Pence jumped in to demand an end to “attacks on Christian education.” The controversy isn’t simply theoretical for me. My daughter attends Sheridan School, an independent private school that plays Immanuel Christian in sports. Sheridan wasn’t aware of the other school’s policies until the Pence debate began to unfold.
“Given our school’s fundamental belief in diversity and inclusion as expressed in our diversity statement, this information, and what to do about it, poses obvious challenges,” wrote Jessica Donovan, Sheridan’s head of school, in an email to parents. Donovan led a series of conversations with coaches, student leaders, and some parents. Most students wanted to continue playing Immanuel Christian, while making a peaceful statement by wearing rainbow socks or warm-ups to affirm inclusive values. I think this would have been a measured, appropriate response. The head of school also noted in her communication with parents that some students “did not feel safe entering a school that bans LGBTQ parents, students or even families that support LGBTQ rights,” and that “forcing our children to choose between an environment in which they feel unsafe or staying home was not an option.” Donovan invited Immanuel Christian to play their games at Sheridan, an offer the school declined. The two schools will no longer play each other.
Reaction on the right was swift. Prominent conservative writer Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option, pounced. “The Sheridan School, which describes itself in its mission statement as ‘progressive,’ took to the fainting couch over the fact that its sports teams had to play a bunch of gross Evangelical kids,” he wrote in a post entitled “Immanuel & the Cost of Discipleship.” In keeping with a growing consensus among conservative Christians, Dreher sees the incident as part of a broader cultural backlash against religious communities that hold views about human sexuality and marriage that are increasingly out of step with public opinion and conceptions of human rights:
They don’t have to pass laws hemming in orthodox Christian schools. They can accomplish a lot simply with social pressure. The Christian students and parents at Immanuel will now get a lesson in what it means to endure spite for the sake of fidelity. And so will the rest of us watching from the sidelines. Sheridan School has actually done Immanuel a favor, showing them the cost of discipleship. It’s not really about sports, but about learning how to bear social stigma with grace and courage. If your Christian school can’t handle being hated and shunned by a sports league, it won’t be able to stand up to real persecution.