Oklahoma State Representative Uses Equality Ride as Excuse to Discriminate Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth; Dialogue Continues in Shawnee at Oklahoma Baptist University

For Immediate Release
Contact: Richard Lindsay, 646-258-7193

Shawnee, OK — In a shocking reversal, the Oklahoma state school board yesterday overturned a policy protecting gay students from discrimination from teachers. The previous policy stated that teachers could not "deny benefits to any student" or "grant any advantage to any student" based on sexual orientation. The new policy reads, "the teacher shall comply with all federal and state anti-discrimination laws." Federal and state laws do not protect students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Representative Kevin Calvey of Del City, OK released a press statement yesterday taking credit for requesting this change from the school board and thanking various conservative religious organizations for their assistance. In a Tulsa World article, Representative Calvey justified his discrimination by citing the recent Equality Ride action at Oral Roberts University in which nine Riders and community members were arrested for trespassing. He suggested that this policy reversal would "protect" students from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activist groups meeting on public elementary and secondary school grounds. Carrying out Representative Calvey’s request was state schools superintendent Sandy Garrett, who pressed for passage of the change without public hearing.

"This change in policy by the Oklahoma school board has nothing to do with our actions in Oklahoma," said Jacob Reitan, co-director of the Soulforce Equality Ride. "This is a cowardly act of election-year pandering from Representative Calvey and Superintendent Garrett."

"This is a prime example of why we are here," Reitan continued. "For state officials to use the First Amendment expressions of dissent by Equality Riders at a private religious university to withdraw protections from public schoolchildren shows the level of fear that exists about discussing the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students."

"These officials are afraid because their churches and ministers have made them afraid," Reitan said. "Religious leaders have misused their authority to tell their followers that lesbian and gay people are sick, sinful and a threat to their children. It is time to bring this kind of religion-based discrimination to an end."

Oral Roberts is a private religious college and would not be affected by school board rules governing student-teacher interaction in public elementary and secondary schools. The anti-discrimination policy also only refers to teacher interaction with students and would not affect the federally protected rights of students to form gay-straight alliances or other organizations dealing with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Other activists in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community had this to say:

Laura Belmonte of Tulsa Oklahomans for Human Rights said, "Given the fact that the Oklahoma public education system consistently ranks among the nation’s poorest, we think superintendent Sandy Garrett should be more concerned with preparing our children for college and productive careers than misusing her powers to disregard the diversity of Oklahoma."

"The action that the state board of education took in rescinding the non-discrimination policy protecting LGBT students from discrimination is wrong," said Keith Smith, a lobbyist for the Oklahoma ACLU. "This action sends a clear message that LGBT children will not be protected in the public school setting. There are also concerns that the action taken by the state school board may be in violation of Oklahoma law that requires notice of meeting and agenda items."

"A busload of young adults traveling across the country to call attention to inequality for LGBT students in our universities should not be an excuse to discriminate against LGBT students in our public schools" said Lucy Wilkes, president of Stillwater Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG). "Who are we kidding? There will always be LGBT students; we need to make all our schools safe places for these young people. We need to put back these protections."

Dialogue continues at OBU

Equality Riders continued dialogue at Oklahoma Baptist University today, attending chapel with OBU students and meeting with them in the student center. After negotiations with OBU administration, Equality Riders were allowed to hand out booklets addressing conservative religious claims about the Bible and homosexuality. Despite strict limitations on presentations and contact with students at OBU, Equality Riders were encouraged by this gesture of openness from the University.

"Sometimes change is slow in coming," said Kayla Bonewell, one of the Riders responsible for planning the Oklahoma stops. "But as the Bible tells us, sometimes faith the size of a mustard seed can sprout to great height."

After meeting with students, the Equality Ride held a rally in a park near campus. About 40 Oklahoma City and Shawnee community members came to the meeting. They heard Ryan Rolston, a student who was expelled from OBU in 2003 for being a lesbian tell her story of plunging into addiction and self-destructive behavior after her expulsion from the school. She told the audience that the breakthrough in her recovery came when she realized that, "It wasn’t God who had rejected me; it was God’s children."

The Equality Ride will be heading to Abeline Christian University in Texas on March 27 and 28, where the university has planned events, discussions and lectures to allow open dialogue between students and Riders.

For more information on the Equality Ride visit www.equalityride.com/media.

Soulforce’s purpose is freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from religious and political oppression through the practice of relentless nonviolent resistance.