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Lesbian couple hopeful Md. law requires Christian school to enroll son

School disputes claim it denied boy’s admission due to parents’ sexual orientation

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Jennifer Dane, son Brayden and her partner Megan Stratton (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Dane)

A lesbian couple is hopeful that Maryland’s nondiscrimination laws will require the Grace Academy, a private non-denominational Christian school in Hagerstown, Md., to reverse its decision earlier this month to deny admission to their 11-year-old son Brayden.

Jennifer Dane and her partner and fiancé Megan Stratton point to a May 8 letter from the academy’s upper school principal saying, “We regret to inform you that, due to a lifestyle counter to the Biblical worldview we teach, we have decided to deny enrollment to Grace Academy” for Brayden. 

The two women say the letter followed an interview they had with the principal in question, Mark Koontz, Jr., in which he initially expressed support for Brayden’s enrollment but quickly changed his tune when the women asked him about the school’s anti-bullying policy. According to a report by the Advocate, Koontz said he couldn’t control Grace Academy’s community reaction to a student with two moms and he would have to consult with the school’s director about admitting Brayden.

When school officials received word that Dane and Stratton might file a discrimination complaint against the school, Grace Academy director Greg Whitley sent an email to the couple saying their sexual orientation wasn’t the reason for the school’s denial of admission for Brayden.

According to the Advocate, Whitley claimed that a lack of regular church attendance, prayers, and family devotions conflicted with the school’s “worldview” and that this was the “lifestyle” issue referred to in the earlier letter.

(Screen capture via NBC4)

Dane told the Washington Blade this week that she and Stratton strongly dispute the school’s denial that it refused admission to Brayden for reasons other than his parents’ sexual orientation based on what he told them during their interview. Dane said the couple told Koontz in the interview that Brayden is a practicing Christian who prays and reads the Bible and that he attended another Christian school before the family moved to a different part of Hagerstown resulting in his enrollment in a public school, which he currently attends.

The couple has since learned that Grace Academy has received federal and state school funding in the past and may have lost its state funding under a specific program for not complying with certain requirements. Dane said she also learned that the school in the recent past has admitted students with same-sex parents.

The Advocate reports that a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), whose district includes Hagerstown, said Trone strongly objects to Grace Academy’s decision to deny admission to Brayden and that Trone’s staff is investigating the matter.

Dane said she heard that the state Department of Education may also be investigating whether the school is currently receiving state education funds and whether receiving such funds requires the school to comply with the state law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Blade, meanwhile, has been unable to immediately reach spokespersons for the Maryland State Board of Education and the State of Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, to determine whether a religious school like the Grace Academy is bound by the state’s nondiscrimination laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The federal nondiscrimination law and some state laws include an exemption for religious institutions.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” said Dane, who said she and Stratton were waiting to hear back from attorneys they have called to find out if they have grounds to file a discrimination complaint under state or county law.

Dane said the two have learned that Grace Academy has received federal and state education funds under various programs, which could require that it comply with state nondiscrimination laws as a condition for receiving state funds.

A spokesperson for the school couldn’t immediately be reached early this week for comment.

A message by school officials sent out Monday night to parents, which was provided to the Blade, detailed the school’s position on the controversy:

Dear Grace Families,

In lieu of a recent situation regarding a denied enrollment, Grace Academy has found itself to be in opposition with the individuals who sought admission.  Since having been denied, the individuals involved have taken further action, including going to the media.  The Board of Directors and the Administration Team are aware of the circumstances and are taking the necessary steps to conclude this matter in a way that will be honorable to God while upholding the Christian Values that we hold dear.  At this moment, we would ask that you hold the Board and the Administration in prayer, that they would be led by God’s wisdom throughout this process.  

We thank you all for your continued support and belief that Grace Academy is the institution that will both educate your children, but also aide in their ability to stand for Christ.

If you have need to seek further information, please contact Mr. Whitley, our Head of School.
God Bless,

Grace Academy Board of Directors and Administration 

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Maryland

Abortion rights in post-Roe Maryland, Delaware

Practice generally legal, with some restrictions

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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (Public domain photo)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday overturned Roe v. Wade, which in 1973 found that the decision to receive an abortion was generally protected by the Constitution of the United States. With the broadest federal protection of abortion access now rescinded, the legality of abortion will by and large be determined on the state level.

In Delaware, abortion is legal through the Medical Practice Act — but with some restrictions.

After fetal viability, or the point where a fetus can survive outside the uterus, abortion in the First State becomes illegal unless necessary for the patient’s “life or health,” or if the fetus has a condition “for which there is not a reasonable likelihood” that it will survive outside the uterus, according to Subchapter IX of the act

Additionally, under the state’s Parental Notice of Abortion Act, physicians cannot perform a surgical abortion on minors under the age of 16 unless the patient’s parent or guardian has received at least 24 hours notice from a medical professional. Notice is not required for nonsurgical abortions.

On the federal level, the funding of abortion is illegal through the 1977 Hyde Amendement “except in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest,” according to the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive rights advocacy organization. States are only federally required to fund abortions that meet these conditions through federal-state Medicaid programs. 

While some states also fund abortions deemed medically necessary regardless of whether they endanger a patient’s life, Delaware state law does not extend beyond federal guidelines: The state only funds abortions in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest.

Abortion legislation in Delaware mirrors neighboring Maryland, whose laws include similar restrictions on abortion after fetal viability and abortion for minors under the age of 16. But abortion laws in these states are generally more restrictive than other mid-Atlantic counterparts, such as New Jersey and New York.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) weighed in on the state’s abortion law on Friday.

“In 1992, Maryland voters approved a constitutional referendum legalizing and protecting access to abortion as a matter of state law – that measure remains in effect today following the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson. I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of Maryland, and that is what I have always done and will continue to do as governor.”

The impact of Roe v. Wade’s fall in Delaware remains uncertain. While the abortion rate in Delaware steadily declined between 2014 and 2017, recent findings show that instances of abortion are increasing once again in the state, reflecting a rise on the national level.

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Maryland

Howard County executive announces plans for LGBTQ commission

Calvin Ball made announcement at Wednesday press conference in Columbia

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Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announces plans for new LGBTQ commission. (Photo courtesy of Howard County government)

Under the “People’s Tree” sculpture near the Columbia lakefront, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced at a press conference on Wednesday the filing of legislation that would permanently establish the current LGBTQ Workgroup as a formal commission.

The new commission would follow the work of the LGBTQ Workgroup launched in 2019 by Ball.

“This commission will help move Howard County forward and will identify best practices to affirm members of the gay and transgender community; recommend initiatives to support LGBTQIA+ families and children; and advise us on policy and programs that impact our gay and transgender community, and on how to improve outcomes for underserved and at-risk members of the LGBTQIA+ population,” said Ball in his opening remarks in front of a crowd that included members of the LGBTQ Workgroup, county employees, members of the county’s Human Rights commissioners and LGBTQ activists and allies as well as elected officials and candidates.

He added, “The commission will support, plan, and help execute events, like PRIDE, to celebrate and affirm our community.”

Ball, speakers at the event included Human Rights and Equity Administrator Yolanda Sonier; Register of Wills Byron Macfarlane; Howard County Human Rights Commissioner Bob Ford; PFLAG-Howard County President Jumel Howard and community member Vicki Weiss Vivrette.

“Howard County and Maryland have always led the way on LGBTQ+ rights,” said Macfarlane, a lifetime Howard County resident and the first openly gay elected official in the county. “From Howard County’s anti-discrimination law passed many decades ago, to hate crime and anti-discrimination laws at the state level, to Maryland becoming one of the first states to pass marriage equality — not by judicial fiat — but by popular vote. Our community and our allies have achieved so much, but we know our hard-fought rights are under siege as we speak.”

Ford, the only out member of the county’s Human Rights Commission, continued that point. 

“From a failed attempt to disrupt a Pride celebration in Idaho, to storming into a drag queen storytelling session in California, to over 200 bills in state legislatures aimed at stripping the rights of LGBTQ people especially trans kids — these are wake-up calls. Moreover, at one political party’s convention in Texas this past weekend, language was added to their platform that ‘homosexuality is an abnormal lifestyle choice’ and that party opposes ‘all efforts to validate transgender identity.’”

Ford pointed out that recent Pride flag burnings in Baltimore and that Pride flags have been banned in neighboring Carroll County schools, the chopping down and theft of a welcoming sign from a local church, and a vocal group of parents trying to ban LGBTQ content from books to curricula in schools indicate Howard County is not immune to hate.

The plan for the establishment of the new commission requires the approval of the county council and will be filed in July.

The George Howard Building, the headquarters for Howard County government, was bathed in rainbow lights after Wednesday’s event.

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Maryland

Man arrested for anti-LGBTQ vandalism at P.G. County libraries

Graffiti of word ‘groomer’ listed as hate crime

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(Photo courtesy of the P.G. County Police)

Prince George’s County, Md., police on Thursday charged a Takoma Park, Md., man with two counts of hate-related malicious destruction of property for allegedly spray painting in large yellow letters the word “groomer” on two public library buildings of the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System.

A June 16 statement released by P.G. police states that Charles Southerland, 30, of Takoma Park allegedly carried out the vandalism at the Greenbelt Branch Library at 11 Crescent Rd., Greenbelt, Md., on June 4 and at the New Carrollton Branch Library at 7414 Riverdale Rd., New Carrollton, Md., on June 9.

WTOP News reports that Sutherland himself is a librarian working at the Prince George’s County public school system’s library at Northview Elementary School in Bowie, Md. The school system says Southerland has been placed on administrative leave.

“The preliminary investigation revealed Southerland spray-painted the word ‘groomer’ on the exteriors of both buildings,” the P.G. County police statement says. “He has confessed to the incidents,” the statement continues. “Anyone with information on Southerland is encouraged to call 301-699-2601,” it says.

Organizations monitoring hate groups in the United States have said anti-LGBTQ organizations and individuals have for the last few years used the term “groomer” to describe their claims that LGBTQ people attempt to “groom” school children as a means of recruiting them into homosexuality and to transition.

“From what we can tell, that’s one of the kinds of dog whistle words that the anti-LGBTQ+ extremists are using this year,” said Nicholas Brown, a spokesperson for the P.G. library system. “There’s been some national news coverage about that word specifically,” he said.

In a statement released shortly before P.G. police announced they had made an arrest in the vandalism incident, the P.G. public library system condemned the vandalism and said it would not waiver from its commitment to maintaining “welcoming spaces for LGBTQ+ customers and their allies,” which some observers have suggested could have been the reason the suspect targeted the two library buildings.

“The Library is nationally recognized for its outreach and programs in support of LGBTQ+ inclusion through staff leadership and partnerships with a wide range of local government and non-profit partners,” the library system’s statement says.

Brown said he wasn’t at liberty to disclose how police linked Southerland to the vandalism incidents. But in response to a question from the Washington Blade, he said the library system has a video surveillance system in place that monitors both the interior and exterior of all its buildings.

It couldn’t immediately be determined whether Southerland had appeared in court following his arrest and whether he will be held or released pending trial.

Charles Southerland (Photo courtesy of the P.G. County Police)
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