Lee’s Summit teachers protest required district meeting at anti-gay church — and win

For the second consecutive year the Lee’s Summit school district planned its back-to-school convocation for all district staff to be held at a church in town that is anti-gay. But this year teachers said, no way.

Teachers learned on Friday that the district had scheduled its welcome-back event at the Abundant Life church, even after last year, when some had opposed having a public school event in a religious space with anti-gay beliefs. They took to social media to organize a protest against the convocation, set for Wednesday.

Teachers quickly made plans to show up wearing rainbow colored T-shirts, gay pride stickers, pins and buttons supporting the LGBTQ community.

Then Monday morning, the pressure forced district leaders to move the event to the Lee’s Summit High School field house.

The decision comes after a year of Lee’s Summit being in the spotlight for having fought against proposals for racial equity training, a controversy that led to the superintendent resigning last month with a $750,000 buyout.

“I already struggle with us having a district meeting at a church due to separation of church and state, but I really struggle when messages of hate are being preached,” Terry Durnell, a Lee’s Summit teacher, posted on Facebook Saturday evening.

“My personal belief is that the district holding a required meeting there is equivalent to supporting the church’s beliefs and that sends a clear message to the community and our students. I am in no way anti-church or anti-Christian. But I am anti-hate.” The post set off a flurry of comments from teachers supporting her position.

The Abundant Life Church, at 304 S.W. Persels Road in Lee’s Summit, has a “Statement of Faith” on its website that says, “We believe that the home was the first institution God provided for man; that marriage is a sacred relationship between one man and one woman for life; and that homosexuality is a perversion of God’s natural order of one man for one woman.”

Phil Hopper, the church’s lead pastor, said in a statement to The Star: “We welcome everyone at Abundant Life. We believe that God loves everyone and is for every single person. We also believe that God is the one who defines human sexuality in scripture and it is what our church believes.” He said the church values the relationship it’s had for several years with the district. “We look forward to serving and partnering with them in the future.”

Three years ago, Hopper testified before a Missouri House committee in favor of an amendment to the state’s constitution to allow individuals and businesses that cite religious beliefs to deny service to same-sex couples.

“We’re not bigots,” Hopper told the committee. “We just disagree.” The bill did not make it out of the General Assembly to be put before a public vote.

The Lee’s Summit district has partnerships with several area churches, including Abundant Life. Churches, district officials said, are community entities that help out the schools with such things as food pantries, volunteering in schools and putting food in backpacks to feed hungry students.

District leaders wanted to hold the convocation at the church because it was free and big enough to accommodate the 2,200 employees, said Kelly Wachel, the district spokeswoman.

She said the district doesn’t have a space large enough to comfortably hold its entire workforce.

“It is not unusual for school districts to have convocations or graduations at churches,” Wachel said. “There is a balance between partnership and beliefs.”

She said the district opted to move the convocation because “we don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable,” and officials wanted to be sure teachers knew “we are listening.”

“As we made the decision to host our convocation in-district, it was important that we took time to listen and seek to understand,” Wachel said in a statement released Monday afternoon. “We are very much in tune to the sentiments and feelings among our staff and our community and this decision allows us to honor multiple voices.

“This does not diminish our gratitude to Abundant Life for their willingness to host our staff, this decision simply seeks to acknowledge multiple perspectives and honor them. We are thankful for our teachers who chose to engage with us in conversation and we hope these conversations can be a demonstration of our commitment to strong personal relationships as the foundation of what we represent.”

For the past year, Lee’s Summit had been steeped in controversy over a proposal from then-superintendent Dennis Carpenter to bring racial equity training to teachers, school leaders and staff.

The school board twice voted against hiring firms to lead training. The debate divided the predominantly white community and boiled over when threats were lobbed at Carpenter. The Jackson County Sheriff’s Department provided him with a security detail.

After months of pressure from a segment of the community that had accused some school board members of being racially insensitive, the board eventually voted in favor of the training plan. But after mediation, Carpenter and the district agreed to part ways.

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Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.