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California

Beliefs Imperil Funding

Three of five on an O.C. school board reject a state gender definition on religious grounds.

March 14, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Citing their Christian principles, trustees of a small Orange County school district are defying a state anti-discrimination law that allows students and school staff to define their own gender.

A refusal by a three-trustee majority of the five-member school board to reverse its position could ultimately jeopardize as much as $40 million in state and federal funding, two-thirds of the budget for a district that serves 10,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

It is a risk, said the defiant trustees of the Westminster School District, that they're willing to take if the alternative is to compromise their morals.

"It's amazing how much we've eroded our society," said trustee Judy Ahrens, who describes herself as a devout Christian. "Everyone always wants to fix things tomorrow. Well, I'm saying the time is ripe now. I might take a lot of heat for it today, but the rewards are going to be great in heaven."

At issue is the wording of a state law that requires schools to protect certain groups from discrimination, including transsexuals and others who embrace unconventional gender roles. The three trustees say the law allows grade-school students and staff to immorally redefine their sexual identity.

By refusing to comply with state law, the three have pitted themselves against fellow board members, parents and school administrators. Their critics accuse them of inappropriately imposing their own beliefs while ignoring their responsibilities to uphold state law.

"We do not see this as a moral issue," said Trish Montgomery, a district spokeswoman, speaking for the superintendent and other administrators. "It is a matter of complying with the law."

The debate over gender definitions has polarized the board like no other issue. It was triggered in January, when district administrators informed trustees that Westminster's policy for handling discrimination complaints was not in compliance with state regulations.

In listing groups that are protected from discrimination, the district makes a nonspecific reference to "gender" and no reference to "sex" and "sexual orientation."

The omissions are significant in light of an anti-discrimination law signed in 2000 by then-Gov. Gray Davis to protect transsexuals and others who do not fall into common gender categories, and gays on school campuses.

The law requires schools' anti-discrimination complaint procedures to reflect the state's definition of "sex" as male or female, and "gender," as "a person's actual sex or perceived sex and includes a person's perceived identity, appearance or behavior."

But where lawmakers saw equal rights, Ahrens and fellow board members Helena Rutkowski and Blossie Marquez-Woodcock saw an assault on morals and ethics.

"I can't, with a clear conscience, ... vote for this trash," Marquez-Woodcock declared at an early February board meeting, during which she and her two allies voted down the state's wording.

A review by California Department of Education officials later in the month found the district out of compliance. State officials advised the board to make the required changes at a Feb. 26 emergency meeting. The board convened, but the three trustees refused to reconsider.

No other district in the state has hesitated to update its anti-discrimination policies, said Gary Page, the Education Department official who reviewed Westminster.

If the district remains in violation beyond an April 12 deadline, it will be exposed to formal complaints from anyone challenging the policy, according to Michael Hersher, an attorney for the Education Department.

California law, he said, allows the department to withhold some or all of a district's state and federal funding if it refuses to comply with state mandates. Westminster receives $40 million -- nearly two-thirds of its $68-million annual budget -- from state and federal sources. The department could also sue to force the district to adopt the state regulations.

The three board members' unbending stance has angered and disappointed the board's two other members, district Supt. Barbara DeHart and scores of parents, who, at a March 4 board meeting, protested the early-February vote to reject the state's wording. Of 10 who spoke on the issue, nine criticized the board majority's position.

"They are going to risk our children's education for their own personal convictions," said parent Patricia Ashcraft, who spoke at the meeting. "They're trying to fight a morality issue ... but they're doing it in the wrong arena."

If the three want to take issue with state law, Ashcraft and district officials said, they should do so by lobbying legislators.

Ahrens, Rutkowski and Marquez-Woodcock said they had no intention of changing their minds and do not believe the state will impose financial sanctions. They insisted that they are opposed to discrimination against anyone, but that providing special protection for transsexuals offended their Christian beliefs.

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