Members of two Christian churches in Juneau object to a high school event intended to promote tolerance of gays, saying the Day of Silence advocates what they call an unacceptable homosexual agenda.
The churches, Chapel By the Lake and Auke Bay Bible Church, sent letters to school district administrators asking that the day's theme be broadened to a Day of Respect that would take the focus off gay students.
Juneau-Douglas High School student organizers of the Day of Silence say to broaden the theme would defeat the event's purpose.
"The Day of Silence is a national day and we don't want the purpose diluted," said Coryjean Whittemore, 16, who organized the event last year and spoke at the high school site council meeting Thursday.
Last April, at least 140 JDHS students participated in the first Juneau Day of Silence by taking a day-long oath of silence to demonstrate the silence gays and lesbians must practice to avoid discrimination.
Though most students supported the event, a few pulled down event posters, and others passed out "straight pride" flyers, organizers said.
The Day of Silence is a 6-year-old national event sponsored by the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network. According to the national Day of Silence Web site, www.dayofsilence.org, 100,000 students participated last year.
After last year's event in Juneau, Chapel by the Lake, an evangelical Presbyterian church, and Auke Bay Bible Church, a nondenominational born-again Christian church, sent identical letters to schools Superintendent Gary Bader, JDHS Principal Deb Morse and the JDHS site council asking that the Day of Silence be changed to a Day of Respect during which students could wear ribbons and put up posters for their own ethnic, religious, or environmental causes.
Without that broad focus, the letter said, the school would be perceived as promoting a single cause, referring to homosexuality. Several dozen church members signed the letters.
At Thursday night's JDHS site council meeting of educators, parents and community members, Whittemore compared the Day of Silence to the National Smoke-Out Day, during which smokers are encouraged to quit. To turn the smoke-out into a day to quit all "things that are bad for you" would diminish the impact on smokers, as the Day of Respect would diminish the effect for gay and lesbian students, she said.
At the meeting, Principal Morse referred the students to the next Juneau School Board meeting, on Oct. 1, saying that she wanted the board's guidance before making a decision.
"In some ways I support the broad underpinnings of the Day of Respect with a lot of different groups; at the same time that might in some way water down the message (of the Day of Silence)," Morse said later.
At the site council meeting, members also discussed the pending results of a school climate survey, in which high school students were polled on factors that make them feel welcome at school.
Though the official results have not been released, health teacher Nancy Seamount confirmed that gay students are just behind Alaska Native students as targets of derogatory speech.
Pastor Tim Frega from Auke Bay Bible Church, which has about 300 members, doubts the results of such a survey, and thinks the Day of Silence focuses on a lifestyle choice that is immoral.
"Anybody can take a poll and get whatever they want," he said. "We love the lesbian and the gay individuals ... but there is plenty of places in the word of God that say (homosexuality) is wrong."
Frega said Christian members of the site council were "misled" last year into thinking the Day of Silence was about tolerance generally. Morse denies that, saying the school administration and site council members were aware that last year's event was about tolerance toward gay students.
Steve Olmstead, pastor of the 400-person congregation at Chapel By The Lake, said the church's governing body had not been unanimous about sending the letter, which was forwarded to it by members of Auke Bay Bible Church.
Openly gay pastors may be ordained in the Presbyterian Church, but they may not practice homosexuality by engaging in a relationship, Olmstead said. There also are openly homosexual members of the church's congregation.
"While there is diversity within (our congregation), there is a majority that would affirm that homosexuality is not how God ultimately intended," Olmstead said, adding that he feels society as a whole is confused about sexuality. "Is (the Day of Silence) really about respect, or is it about accepting a lifestyle? Why not open it up to all groups?"
Frega questioned why Christian groups couldn't have a similar day to mourn Christian martyrs. Morse said that like the Day of Silence group, there are student-initiated Christian groups, such as one that recently led a public prayer around the school flagpole.
Frega stressed that people who call his church homophobic are being biased against Christian views.
"We've got people being intolerant of our intolerance. Where will it end?" Frega questioned.
On Wednesday night, students who support the Day of Silence addressed the city Human Rights Commission about their concern that the Day of Silence would be changed. The commission granted them a resolution of support.
"We support freedom of speech and the right of any group to practice freedom of speech. It did not have anything to do with the event itself," said Keith Hermann, chairman of the commission.
Health teacher Seamount said she encourages Christian students who feel homosexuality is morally wrong and gay students to express respectfully how they feel.
"I am passionate that one of my purposes as a teacher is to train students to be peaceful but active citizens in democracy," she said.
The Day of Silence is important for gay students, she said, who studies have shown are more likely to suffer depression and have suicidal thoughts.
"I see that there is uniqueness of the suffering of gay students and that is silent suffering," she said.
To illustrate her point, Seamount read a note with the permission of a gay student who passed it to her recently.
"If the world were less afraid of homosexual and bisexual people my life would be a whole lot less stressful," the note read. "I would not have to lie to so many people out of fear for my safety."
Julia O'Malley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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