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Christian, gay groups unite on school conflicts

Issue guidelines stressing civility

WASHINGTON -- As public schools cope with conflicts over homosexuality, they can now get some tips from an unlikely pair: conservative Christians and gay advocates.

Leaders of those groups have agreed on guidelines for how educators, parents, and teachers should deal with any aspect of school life involving sexual orientation.

Unveiled yesterday, the guidance is meant to be a First Amendment framework for finding common ground -- essentially, a way to get people talking instead of screaming at one another.

Controversies over homosexuality and Christianity have roiled schools nationwide, whether the matter is a textbook, a course assignment, or a student club.

The guidelines encourage schools to form a task force of people with divergent views, agree on ground rules for civil debate, understand the First Amendment and state law, keep parents informed, and ensure students can attend classes without fear.

Leaders hailed the united stance on the guidelines as a breakthrough, saying the lack of basic civility is often what leaves community members feeling angry, shut out, and ready to fight.

Those who crafted the guidelines together are the very people who are typically fighting -- conservative Christians, who decry homosexuality as a sinful choice, and gay and lesbian leaders, who say many students are bullied at school just for being themselves.

''This is not about compromising convictions," said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, which helped broker the deal. ''This is about finding ways to work and live together as American citizens."

Groups at polar ends of the same-sex debate -- the Christian Educators Association International and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network -- helped write the guidelines. They will promote them to the hundreds of thousands of people they represent.

The superintendents who run the nation's schools have also endorsed the guidance, as has a prominent group of teachers and curriculum specialists.

Finn Laursen, executive director of the Christian association, said his members are not straying from their beliefs in biblical principles and ''one man, one woman" relationships. Rather, he said, the point is to make sure those views are included in school decisions.

''It's proactive. It doesn't approach the natural conflict that's going to be there after the bomb explodes," Laursen said.

Fair and reasoned debate rarely seems to happen when homosexuality becomes the issue of debate, said Kevin Jennings, executive of the advocacy network for gay students. The guidance could change that, he said, because it comes from those who lead the debate and run the schools.

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