A small group of protesters gathered outside Springfield's Kickapoo High School on Aug. 22, 2022, to support LGBTQ+ students. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

OPINION |

by Revs. Phil Snider & Emily Bowen-Marler, Springfield

When it comes to building meaningful communities in which all students can thrive, cultivating a sense of belonging is among the most important of all tasks. As Coretta Scott King once said, “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.”

As faith leaders committed to the flourishing of all students, we believe it is essential for leaders within Springfield Public Schools — including members of the Springfield school board — to unequivocally state their support of LGBTQ students. Not doing so further perpetuates an environment that is not only exclusive, hostile and demeaning, but also one that significantly hinders academic achievement.

While it’s heartbreaking to share the following information, research clearly shows that LGBTQ students who do not feel like they belong have much higher rates of death by suicide in comparison to students who do feel like they belong. The Trevor Project has traced this data for years, concluding that “LGBTQ youth are not inherently prone to suicide risk because of their sexual orientation or gender identity but rather placed at higher risk because of how they are mistreated and stigmatized in society,” including in school (see thetrevorproject.org).

This should be of utmost concern to school board members, particularly because school board members have publicly professed their care for students on numerous occasions, and we can only assume that caring for students is the primary reason that someone would volunteer to serve on the school board in the first place.

As pastors, we can’t begin to count the number of stories we’ve heard from LGBTQ individuals living in the Ozarks who’ve been harmed because they’ve consistently experienced a lack of belonging. They’ve been forced to hide or deny who they are in order to be accepted, sometimes even kicked out of their church when choosing to be honest about who God created them to be. These wounds are deep and heartbreaking. And they are made worse for having been inflicted by institutions — such as churches and schools — that are supposed to protect and care for them.

While we recognize district policy in regard to the display of political flags, we are taken aback by the reality that Pride flags are still contested as offensive political statements. After all, a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity should not be reduced to a political statement.

Nor should it be offensive. Sexual orientation and gender identity are intrinsically inherent to who a person is, created in the image of God. (Do those who are straight and cisgender view their sexual orientation and gender identity as offensive political statements?)

While it may very well be the right of teachers, parents and students to not want Pride flags displayed in classrooms, the desire by some to have them removed immediately confirms to LGBTQ students that there are those who are hostile to them simply for being who they are. Simply for existing.

We’ve seen this play out in previous eras of our nation’s life. When women were allowed to attend schools that had been for men only, there was a similar outcry. When schools were integrated, the same lines of argumentation were used. School board members can’t control how everyone in the district thinks or feels. They can, however, offer their unequivocal support of LGBTQ students. In religious terms we call this responding to the spirit of love. But it might just as well be understood as being a decent human being.

Revs. Phil Snider & Emily Bowen-Marler are pastors at Brentwood Christian Church in Springfield.