Parents sue over lesbian expose

19th April 1996 at 01:00

Christians have been accused of using a row over a teacher's sexuality to restrict freedom of speech, reports Jon Marcus

An American teacher's public disclosure that she is a lesbian has provoked a lawsuit from the parents of a 17-year-old girl who say their daughter suffered emotional distress, and was harassed for being heterosexual.

Johanna Jenei transferred to a private Christian school after her teacher, Polly Atwood, told a social studies class at Brookline High School, near Boston, she was a lesbian. Miss Jenei's parents now claim their daughter was harassed by other students and by Ms Atwood "on the basis of [her] religious faith, beliefs and her heterosexuality", and they are demanding Pounds 235,000 from the district.

"She was just completely overwhelmed by people bringing their sexual and political agendas into the school," said Randal Fritz, the family's attorney. "The school should do what its own policy books say it should: respect students' differences, including differences of faith."

School officials say that, in fact, Miss Jenei was offered the chance to transfer to another social studies class with a different teacher, or to another subject for an equal number of credits towards her graduation.

"We believe the situation was handled sensitively and thoughtfully," said schools superintendent James Walsh, who described Ms Atwood as an outstanding teacher. "Obviously, the students' parents had a different perspective and a different agenda."

Gay and lesbian activists say Christian groups are using the case and others like it to push for new laws limiting controversial speech in schools.

"Right-wing groups are manipulating this kind of fear around gay and lesbian issues by trying to present gays and lesbians as a threat," said Kevin Jennings, director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Teachers' Network. "What these people are trying to do is say it violates their parental rights to have any view that is not their own represented in schools. They use the schools to impose the values of one set of parents on the whole community."

A gay Michigan teacher was voted an "unfit role model" at a public hearing, for example. An openly gay school board member in Iowa was unseated after a campaign waged by the conservative Christian Coalition. A teacher in New Hampshire was fired for assigning her students EM Forster's Maurice.

"We're seeing this stuff blow up all over the country," said Mr Jennings, a former high-school teacher. "I would be shocked if this doesn't become an issue in the presidential election in the fall."

Randal Fritz, a member of the Christian Coalition and a group called Focus on the Family, once began a libel lawsuit against Senator Edward Kennedy on behalf of an anti-abortion organisation. He also was one of several lawyers affiliated to the Rutherford Institute, a conservative Christian legal group who represented parents in a lawsuit against an explicit Aids education programme. That case was dismissed by a federal judge.

Polly Atwood disclosed her sexual orientation to her class after being interviewed on television about a proposed state law to protect the rights of gay and lesbian students.

"Parents should be concerned about their children's safety," Kevin Jennings said. "But the real danger is homophobia, not homosexuals."

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