Oregon’s Department of Education (ODE) is investigating disturbing reports of potential violations of religious freedom and LGBTQ rights at a public high school.

For us at Americans United, the implication that North Bend High School staff may have been using their personal religious beliefs to determine how they treat LGBTQ students is particularly alarming.

For instance, at least one student allegedly was forced to read Bible passages as a form of punishment. The World, a newspaper in nearby Coos Bay, reported that the ODE heard a complaint from an LGBTQ student assigned to read from the Bible under supervision of district staff, including at least once while being “disciplined” by a school resource officer.

Although the district denied the allegations, The World reported that ODE interviewed the building administrator who confirmed he required students to read the Bible as punishment. Another administrator also confirmed the practice, according to a March 6 ODE letter obtained by the newspaper.

The letter indicated LGBTQ students were hesitant to report discrimination because they felt the religious beliefs of district staff meant they wouldn’t be taken seriously.

“There is substantial evidence to support the allegation that the district subjected LGBTQ students to separate or different rules of behavior, sanctions, or other treatment...,” ODE’s letter stated, adding that the practice of reading from the Bible could have a “chilling effect” on LGBTQ students reporting harassment.

ODE’s letter addressed two other incidents that helped to confirm the LGBTQ students’ fears:

  • A gay couple reported that another student – the child of the building administrator – had driven “very close to them” while they were holding hands and shouted an anti-gay slur at them.  The couple indicated the district didn’t investigate their complaint; instead, they were told the building administrator would discuss the incident with the child from a parent’s perspective.
  • An LGBTQ student reported that a teacher told a classroom of students that same-sex couples marrying was akin to a person marrying a dog. After intervention from administrators, the teacher reportedly apologized to the student.

State education officials have scheduled a hearing with school administration on May 24 to determine whether North Bend School District is in compliance with state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

Amidst the investigation, which apparently began last year, a school counselor who was advocating for the LGBTQ students was relocated within the district, according to The World. The ODE took note of actions by administrators that appeared retaliatory against the counselor.

The counselor, who spoke to The World anonymously, praised the two LGBTQ students who came forward to lodge the complaints: “They had the courage to do this.”

We’re well aware of the courage it takes for people who have been discriminated against – especially children – to speak out against abuses of power. For instance, Americans United represents families in Louisiana’s Bossier Parish who object to the widespread promotion of Christianity by the parish’s public school system. To protect their children from further ostracism, the parents in our lawsuit are anonymous; the threatening and demeaning comments posted on social media since the case was filed in February illustrate why anonymity was necessary.

The bottom line is that public schools should be inclusive spaces that welcome and nourish all children, regardless of their religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, race or ability. Parents should be able to put their trust in public schools to teach children the essentials like reading, math and science while letting families make their own decisions about faith.