A well-funded campaign is underway to impose a conservative moral code in public schools, using the backlash against trans rights as a tool.
A new six-part narrative podcast by NBC News Studios, “Grapevine,” documents a campaign to impose a conservative moral code in public schools in Grapevine, Texas. With the U.S. Supreme Court now controlled by a conservative supermajority, some see an opportunity to tear down legal guardrails separating religion from public life. Advocates warn that the rhetoric emanating out of some circles, where leaders have baselessly accused LGBTQ people of sexually “grooming” children, could lead to violence.
In recent years, some leaders have argued that school prayer would prevent children from identifying as transgender. They have also used the growing acceptance of transgender people in mainstream culture as a tool to motivate followers and advance their agenda of restoring traditional values in public schools. This article explores how this two-pronged fight is unfolding in communities across the country, and what it means for the future of religious freedom and LGBTQ rights in America.
THE RISE OF CONSERVATIVE NATIONALISM
Conservative nationalism is a political ideology that rejects the separation of religion and state as a false doctrine and views LGBTQ acceptance as a threat. Some leaders see the backlash against transgender people as a powerful new tool to motivate followers and push for conservative morality in public schools, such as banning LGBTQ books and flags, restoring prayer and readings from religious texts, and hiring religious chaplains.
One of the most influential figures in this movement is a self-taught historian who has spent decades arguing that public schools should reflect traditional values. He has recently pointed to increases in the number of youth identifying as transgender as a leading sign of moral decline in America, which he attributes to the lack of prayer in schools.
He told a crowd this spring that given the Supreme Court’s makeup, local schools could now confidently restore classroom prayer and go back to teaching creation narratives. He also said he hoped someone would sue them for doing so, because that would create an opportunity to overturn the separation of religion and state.
THE IMPACT ON TRANSGENDER STUDENTS
The campaign to impose conservative values in schools has had a direct impact on the lives of transgender students and their families. In one town, newly elected school board members approved a sweeping plan last year that banned mention of “gender fluidity” from libraries and classrooms, which the document defined as any belief that “espouses the view that biological sex is merely a social construct.”
The plan also restricted lessons on race, gender and sexuality, and gave parents more control over what their children could read or learn. The plan sparked protests from parents, teachers and students who felt it was discriminatory and harmful to LGBTQ children.
One student affected by the plan was a 10-year-old transgender girl who moved there from another town where she faced bullying and harassment for being trans. Her mother said she was shocked by the hostility she encountered from some parents and school board members who opposed her daughter’s right to use the girls’ bathroom and locker room.
Her mother said she felt betrayed by her former faith community, which she had left after realizing her child was transgender. She said she still believes in God, but not in any version of religion that condemns her child.
A PERSPECTIVE FROM FAITH
The tradition teaches that every human being is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and has inherent dignity and worth. It also recognizes that human beings are complex and diverse. In fact, the Talmud refers to six different genders or categories of people who do not fit into the binary model of male or female. These include people who are intersex (born with ambiguous genitalia), people who are transgender (identify with a different gender than their assigned sex), and people who are gender-fluid (experience shifts in their gender identity).
To use the Hebrew terms: the androgynos, one who has both male and female characteristics, the tumtum, one whose biology is unclear, the aylonit, who identified as female at birth, but at puberty, develops male characteristics, and the saris, who appears as male at birth, but later takes on more typically female biology.
The fight over identity rights in classrooms is a manifestation of a larger political conflict shaping our future. Some leaders are using backlash against transgender people to advance their agenda of imposing traditional morality in public schools. Advocates are fighting back, arguing that this campaign is discriminatory and harmful to transgender students and their families.
This article has explored how this conflict is unfolding in communities across the country, and what it means for the issues of religious freedom and personal rights. This war is not only a political but a moral challenge, that calls for empathy, compassion and dialogue.
As we approach a time when all people will recognize the presence of a higher power in the world and live in harmony with each other, we should strive to create a society that respects the diversity and complexity of creation, and that protects the rights and dignity of all.