Features

Gates or bridges?

National | In Virginia, an emotional debate over how Christians relate to public schools goes beyond theory

Issue: "The Dutch culture of death," May 23, 1998

in Lynchburg, Va.- A cold spring drizzle slowly soaked the 16 people gathered outside the Lynchburg, Va., city jail for prayer last month. The tall, graceful Benham boys (they're star baseball players, both likely to be drafted) were there, bowing their heads as local pastor Richard Knodel asked for a righteous resolution to the imprisonment of their father. Flip Benham had been jailed here since February on a trespassing charge. (He was released on May 8, just in time for his sons' graduation). Mr. Knodel prayed for the judge, who sentenced Mr. Benham to a year in jail (six months suspended) on a misdemeanor charge (the equivalent of a traffic ticket). He prayed for the chief of police, who disregarded his officers' statements that the Operation Rescue demonstration at E.C. Glass High School was peaceful and that Mr. Benham was cooperative when informed he was on school property. He prayed for the Lynchburg City Council, which had supported the judge's ruling and sentence, and had issued scathing remarks about Mr. Benham's tactics and motives. And he prayed for Mr. Benham, who said his group, in demonstrating at E.C. Glass High School in October, was "going to the gates of Hell." "If he hadn't used those words, I think this would have turned out a lot different," said Mr. Knodel. That may be accurate, but the conflict in Lynchburg isn't merely over verbiage. It's a conflict between two strategies in approaching public schools. The strategies can be summed up as Gates and Bridges. Some Christians see the secular schools as gates to be stormed. Others prefer to build bridges, as the city's most famous minister, Jerry Falwell, puts it. The two strategies do not coexist comfortably. Lynchburg, home of Mr. Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, the Moral Majority, and Liberty University, is in some ways an object lesson in attempts at godly governance. Men who profess Christ hold a majority on the city council; the city manager is an evangelical, and the mayor owns a Christian bookstore. The public-school system is chock-full of believers, including a significant number of Liberty University graduates working as teachers. And the superintendent professes belief. But many Christians find that when they win their positions, new problems arise. Mayor James Whitaker is one of the political winners. He wears a big Marine Corps ring on his right hand and a tiny cellular phone on his belt. On a sunny Wednesday morning, he was at the New Life Books and Gifts and Christian Outlet, juggling management of the bookstore he owns with calls from citizens: "I'm the mayor of the whole city, so I have to represent everyone, Christian or not," he told WORLD. The week before, he removed some tracts from his shelves because Catholics found their message objectionable. The Mormons are still angry with him because he hasn't taken anti-LDS materials off the shelves. But the mayor was angry about Operation Rescue, angry that he'd received so many letters about Mr. Benham's imprisonment. "I've been getting hate mail," he said. "People are comparing me to Stalin. Quite frankly, I'm tired of it. It's upset my wife. And those letters are from Christians!" The public schools are a particularly sensitive subject for Christians in power. Kevin Clauson learned this when he announced his bid for a city council seat in February. Mr. Clauson, a department chairman at Liberty University (with 10,000 students) and the president of Christ College (also in Lynchburg, but with about 20 students), says he planned to run as a cultural conservative, stressing his interests in education and tax relief. But when Mr. Clauson met with Republican leaders, including sitting city council member Bill McRorie, he says he was told to tone it down. "There's a real fear-a strategic fear-of saying anything that could be interpreted as criticism of the public schools," Mr. Clauson explained. Mr. McRorie repeatedly declined offers to be interviewed for this article. One such strategy session took place in late February in Mr. Clauson's big, stately 1920s house, done up in wingback chairs and federal blue. Republicans gathered to talk over the coming campaign and to advise hopefuls. They included county Republican officials and a few Republican officeholders. "They sat me down and said to me, in particular, because I homeschooled my children, I'm deeply involved in private education, they said, 'Just don't say anything about education,'" he recounted. "If I was asked, I was supposed to say I support the ongoing efforts of the city council to cooperate with the school board. And they warned me if I talked too much about cutting taxes, it might be interpreted as criticism of the public schools." Well, he asked his advisers, could he talk about his desire to improve public schools? "Absolutely not," he said he was told. "That implies they need improvement." Gates Texan Flip Benham came to Lynchburg last November to speak at a chapel service at Liberty University (at the invitation of Mr. Falwell). He invited Liberty students to accompany him as he took the gospel "to the Gates of Hell." In reality, it was to be a mix of pro-life protest and witnessing. Between 150 and 200 students accepted Mr. Benham's call, and the next morning they gathered outside the Rite-Aid Pharmacy, across the street from E.C. Glass High School. It was a fairly low-key (for Operation Rescue) demonstration. The group prayed, then marched over to the school, congregating at the front of the school where the buses unload. Lynchburg News and Advance reporter Christopher Calnan spent much of the morning at Mr. Benham's side. If there was disorderly conduct, he says, it was on the part of school principal Susan Morrison. "She came out, screaming, just very excited," said Mr. Calnan. "She had a cell phone in one hand and was waving the other, demanding Benham leave immediately." Within half an hour, police officer Steve Clark told Mr. Benham he was on school property and he'd have to leave. Mr. Benham agreed to leave, but asked for a few minutes to gather his troops and dismiss them with prayer. Officer Clark gave him permission; and it's on a relatively minor point here that the city fathers are basing Mr. Benham's imprisonment. OR says Mr. Benham took "10 minutes or so." The official position of the city is that it was more like 45 minutes. According to Mr. Calnan, the Lynchburg reporter and a professing Christian, the sequence of events took something longer than half an hour, from the time Officer Clark gave his order, to when the last demonstrator left school property. In either case, all agreed that Mr. Benham sent his demonstrators home and left without incident. Police remained in a relaxed posture throughout the morning, and no arrests were made. But many people in Lynchburg seemed deeply offended by the demonstration and particularly the "Gates of Hell" label. (In March, school officials commissioned a banner and put it up in front of the campus. It read, "Welcome to the Gates of Knowledge.") Mayor Whitaker says OR should have notified the city and asked permission to demonstrate. "We didn't know what they were going to do," he said. "And that's what bothers me as a Christian mayor." He says he resents OR's claim that Mr. Benham was being persecuted for his beliefs. "Mr. Benham isn't in jail for preaching the gospel," he maintained. "That's not what this is about. He deeply offended people around here. There are Christian teachers and administrators throughout the system, but Flip Benham comes in and calls them the 'Gates of Hell.' I know that's what a lot of people think of the public-school system, but we've got to realize there are a lot of Christians involved in public education." Bridges One of those Christians is Jerry Falwell, who has sent scores of his Liberty University graduates and education majors into the Lynchburg public-school system. But as recently as four years ago, he was preaching chapel sermons about the obligation of Christian parents to send their children to Christian schools. He's modified his stance of late. In an interview with WORLD Mr. Falwell said that although he's made up with Mr. Benham (and seems truly to care for Mr. Benham and his boys), he takes issue with the "Gates of Hell" designation. "We have effective campus ministries on every campus in Central Virginia," Mr. Falwell said. "To call the school the 'Gates of Hell' is to do them an injustice. There are seven Liberty University graduates teaching at E.C. Glass alone. To demonize the high school makes no sense to me. It's like going to protest abortion at the nursing home." Mr. Falwell is looking more relaxed than he did in his Moral Majority days. He's had some health problems of late; he says he's cut out ice cream and banana pudding, his favorite desserts. He's also given up front-line politics. He likes to say he's going back to his pastoral roots, but it's naive to think that means he's out of city politics. He's pastor to 22,000 members, or as he says, "one-third of the city." After the November demonstration, Mr. Falwell called city hall and offered to pay the police department's overtime (about $700). "We've spent 42 years building bridges to the community," he says. "I don't want to endanger those." Flip Benham endangered relationships, he suggested, by parachuting in without knowing much about local bridge-building attempts. Local authorities struck back, convening a grand jury a month later and handing down an indictment against Mr. Benham and two Liberty students for trespassing. Charges against one student, Jeffrey Brown, were dropped (the reasons are unclear), but John Reyes was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail, with six months suspended. He's appealing his case and is out on an appeal bond. Mr. Benham returned for his own trial in February, and it was held at the Lynchburg Circuit Court. Police officers testified to the trespass and to the orderliness of the demonstration. Mr. Benham was found guilty and sentenced to a year in jail, with six months suspended. He entered jail on February 18. He was released on May 8, just under three months later. To many, the sentence seemed prolonged and politically driven. Judge Richard Miller has handed out lighter sentences for more serious offenses: In June of last year, he gave a man 30 days for assault with a deadly weapon (it was a knife), and in October he sentenced a man to probation for a felony robbery conviction. There was communication between Judge Miller and the city council and school Superintendent James McCormick. One letter to Mr. Benham's attorney from the judge was carbon-copied to Mr. McCormick. That's not improper, but it is unusual, making the sentence seem like a negotiated settlement, not an impartial assessment. And political pull has played an undeniable part; Mr. Falwell told WORLD he was "able to use my influence in town to call and get the sentence reduced to three months." Mayor Whitaker refused to criticize Judge Miller: "I'm not a judge or a lawyer," he says. "I won't judge the judge. You can't compare sentences." But the American Family Association has defended Mr. Benham and the Liberty student, and challenged a city ordinance mandating permits for public gatherings. The ordinance has been repealed, but AFA is asking a federal judge to ensure the city won't enact another, similarly overbroad measure. But the question remains: Which is the right approach, Gates or Bridges? Still, Christians who disagree on strategies can agree on one thing: The public schools are in dismal condition. E.C. Glass has all the usual problems of public high schools, and maybe even more than its share. Of late, the school's athletic department has been plagued with scandals, and that's made officials sensitive to criticism. Here's a smattering, according to the Lynchburg News and Advance: `In April 1997, Glass athletic director Frank Murray resigned after pleading guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He admitted to taking part in sexually explicit telephone conversations with a female student. `At the start of the football season, E.C. Glass was forced to forfeit three games for using an ineligible player (this was the second time in three years it has been so disciplined). `Football coach Bo Henson was removed as coach when he accused principal Susan Morrison of saying she wanted more whites on the football team and in the stands. That fracas, along with a flier distributed by a black community group showing the low numbers of blacks in advanced classes, added to racial tensions in the school. `Coach Henson's replacement, assistant coach Mike Berry, held the job for only two days before it was discovered he had pled guilty to the 1993 embezzlement of $53,000 from an insurance company (he hid the conviction from school officials). But like fog, such scandals can obscure the bridges Christians have built to the public schools. No one denies Christian teachers inside E.C. Glass High School do have an influence on their students. But no matter how sturdy the bridges are, all roads from the public schools lead to the Supreme Court. Which is why the debate among Christians continues: Gates or Bridges?

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