Bozeman Schools Prioritize Non-Discrimination Over Religious Proselytizing
Some Bozeman students have noted an inconsistency between the Bozeman School District’s policy against discrimination and practices at their school. Their solution was to ask that the local chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) either no longer be an official school club or agree to accept all students. It makes sense that school sanctioned and supported activities should be accessible to everyone.
FCA is a religious entity focused on proselytizing a certain version of conservative Christianity that’s not likely to, or required to, change its views if it operates as an unofficial school group. Becoming an unofficial school group won’t keep FCA from being able to promote its meetings on campus. It just makes it clear that the school isn’t supporting activities that discriminate, and it upholds the separation of church and state.
The discussion around this issue involved the district’s policy that seeks to make schools safe and welcoming places for all students, including those identifying as LGBTQ+. Some Far-Right political activists responded in a panic, including Matthew Monforton, a former legislator and Bozeman City Judge. He claimed in an op-ed that discriminating against LGBTQ+ folks is a tradition in his religious faith that must continue. Through his local law practice, Monforton spends much of his time claiming that communities should function as theocracies governed by his brand of Christian fundamentalism.
A foundational principle in the United States is our right to practice the religion of our choice or to be free from religion. It protects the rights of everyone. When Monforton sermonizes about “religious liberty,” it’s important to recognize it only goes one way – anti-LGBTQ+ activists deserve the special right to discriminate against people with which they don’t agree. This is a perversion of religious freedom, which claims that conservative Christians should be able to use religion as a weapon of discrimination, instead of it acting as a shield protecting the rights of everyone to worship how they choose. That type of hypocrisy is what local students sought to remedy. They recognized that FCA’s ideological beliefs violated established policies and could create an unwelcoming, if not hostile, environment for LGBTQ+ students.
Monforton’s op-ed supporting FCA’s ability to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students isn’t his first foray into this topic. Working with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which the Southern Poverty Law Center designates a hate group, he sued the University of Montana’s Law School on behalf of another anti-LGBTQ+ student group wanting to discriminate based on religious beliefs. He also worked with the ADF in another case where he argued that a Montana pharmacist shouldn’t have to dispense certain medication to customers due to theological objections.
Students, educators, and parents have reason to be concerned about FCA’s presence in public schools. The group’s purpose is to evangelize on school grounds. FCA has a history of telling students that dating non-Christians is “the most dangerous thing” a young person can do, and that students should exploit their peers going through difficult situations by trying to convert them. FCA’s goal is to turn students into missionaries. With such an overt focus on converting students to a very specific brand of Christian fundamentalism, it’s legitimate to ask that FCA not be an official group in public schools.
The students and the Bozeman School Board should be celebrated for making it clear that schools are safe and welcoming places for all students. This is about school policy taking priority over religious proselytizing. Students are free to hold whatever religious beliefs they choose, but official school groups must ensure that their rules for inclusion are aligned with the school district’s policies.