A small middle school located in Marshall, Minn., is at the center of controversy in the local community over the display of an LGBT rainbow flag in its cafeteria along with the US and other international flags without allowing a flag symbolizing another viewpoint.
The Marshall Independent reports that during a packed school board meeting last month, the discussion centered on the Marshall School District not having rules in place that would prevent school displays from supporting one point of view over another.
Several people, including some parents, told the school board that displaying the LGBT flag, while denying other flags to be presented, favored that viewpoint. An eighth-grade student also told the board the school's administration had stopped a student-circulated petition opposing the LGBT flag and had also denied requests to display other flags.
One of those flags, according to the newspaper was the historic Gadsen flag featuring a coiled rattlesnake with the words "Don't Tread On Me" emblazoned across the bottom of the pennant. Another flag denied by the school administration to be displayed was a banner featuring a heterosexual family.
There were several calls for a "viewpoint neutral" approach to the flag display, according to The Independent. One came from Rev. Don LeClere, the pastor at the Marshall Evangelical Free Church, who said a public school should not show preference to one viewpoint, lifestyle or religion over another.
"We are not haters nor are we against individuals in the LGBTQ plus community. But you can also truly love an individual and hold a different viewpoint from them," he explained.
The pastor said the school should, "either erect other lifestyle flags, like the two we submitted, to represent all students, or remove the one lifestyle flag, choosing to remain viewpoint neutral and truly communicating a concern for all students," according to the newspaper.
The Thomas More Society, a not-for-profit, national public interest law firm, is representing a small group of Marshall residents and agrees the school district should adopt a "viewpoint-neutral" policy.
"At the very least, it's divisive and insensitive. It makes it appear that the school supports one group's beliefs at the expense of others," Thomas More Society Special Counsel Erick Kaardal said.
He added that when students expressed their concern to teachers and administrators over the lifestyle that the flag promotes, they were bullied.
"Whether this was an inappropriate decision by a staff member or a deliberate violation of students' rights, this is a serious matter," Kaardal remarked. "It is incumbent upon school officials to write and enforce rules that prevent the public school from being turned into a forum for the display of a single ideology. As members of the academic community, these administrators should understand that you cannot trample on the right to free speech."
On March 5, Kaardal sent a letter to the school district requesting documentation of all policies and communications pertinent to petitions, displays, anti-bullying, and related matters as required under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.
"School buildings are funded by public tax dollars," explained Kaardal. "A 'viewpoint-neutral' policy toward flags and other displays will assure taxpayers that their money does not go to promote symbols of beliefs they may not agree with. If a federal lawsuit is needed to make this happen, we are equipped to pursue that action."