Karen Pence, second lady of the United States, is going back to work. But as the Huffington Post reported on January 15, there’s an unsavory twist to this tale of female empowerment. Pence is resuming a position at Immanuel Christian School in Springfield, Virginia, and Immanuel refuses admission to LGBT students. And to students with LGBT parents. And to anyone who even condones “sexual immorality, homosexual activity or bisexual activity.” Its employment policies are similarly strict. Applicants have to prove that they, too, oppose “homosexual or lesbian sexual activity,” “transgender identity, any other violation of the unique roles of male and female,” and must affirm the notion that “a wife is commanded to submit to her husband as the church submits to Christ.”
Pence’s willingness to sign such a document doesn’t really come as a surprise. Her husband, Vice-President Mike Pence, isn’t exactly known for his embrace of LGBT rights. Wives may not be extensions of their husbands, but it’s reasonable to assume that the Pences share religious views. They did, after all, send their daughter Charlotte to this school, and friends of the couple previously described Karen as her family’s “prayer warrior” in comments to the Washington Post. And Immanuel’s policies are common enough for conservative, Christian schools, a fact religious conservatives repeatedly pointed out following the Huffington Post’s story:
These criticisms largely miss the point of the Huffington Post’s article. Yes, Immanuel’s policies are common, and institutions like it have a First Amendment right to restrict admission on the basis of doctrinal conviction. The school also bans heterosexual sex outside marriage, as do most if not all Christian schools with similar views. Many a pregnant teen could attest that these institutions are not much more hospitable to students who obviously stray outside set behavioral parameters. Nevertheless, the distinction between behavior and identity is not as meaningful as Alexandra de Sanctis, of the National Review, suggests. These schools do not police queer and straight identity to the same extent, and thus queer and straight students do not experience equal levels of risk. A female student may face expulsion for getting pregnant, but she can at least call someone her boyfriend without getting dragged into a disciplinary hearing. Immanuel’s policy is especially broad, incorporating vague pronouncements regarding the “unique roles of male and female,” and in practice, institutions can wield these policies against students for a variety of infractions. Christian schools have expelled students for merely admitting they’re gay, for having LGBT relatives, and for wearing clothing that isn’t traditionally masculine or feminine. (I attended a Christian high school like Immanuel for two years and graduated from a Christian college with similar policies.)
On Thursday, Vice-President Pence responded to the controversy, saying that while he and his wife are accustomed to criticism, “to see major news organizations attacking Christian education is deeply offensive to us.” Pence spokesperson Kara Brooks added: “It’s absurd that her decision to teach art to children at a Christian school, and the school’s religious beliefs, are under attack.”
Criticism aside, it’s obviously newsworthy that the second lady of the United States will take a paycheck from a school that discriminates on the basis of identity. It would be newsworthy under any president, but in Pence’s case, it has particular relevance. Her husband is part of the Trump administration, and officials like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos routinely back school choice policies that would financially benefit Christian schools like Immanuel. In fact, one of Immanuel’s accreditation bodies, the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), boasts on its website that member schools will benefit from a legislative affairs arm that lobbies for school choice, a broad category that includes things like school vouchers and scholarship programs funded by public tax credits. In states with voucher programs on the books, parents can directly apply public funds to tuition at schools that discriminate against LGBT students. One school, Lighthouse Christian Academy in Indiana, receives $650,000 in voucher money. In 2017, the Huffington Post reported that 76 percent of the schools that participate in school choice programs are religious, and of that number, 14 percent actively discriminate on the basis of sexual or gender identity.
Virginia doesn’t have school vouchers, a situation unlikely to change with a Democratic governor in power. But it does award tax credits to businesses and individuals who donate to one of 31 approved scholarship programs. ACSI operates one of those scholarship funds. It’s not immediately clear if Immanuel participates in that fund — according to its website, it operates its own scholarship funds for students — but the fact remains that in the state of Virginia, schools with policies like Immanuel’s do benefit from state tax incentives.
DeVos, meanwhile, won’t publicly commit to blocking anti-LGBT schools from participating in school choice programs. And under her purview, the Department of Education has rolled back its enforcement of anti-discrimination policies designed to protect LGBT students who attend public schools. In this context, Karen Pence’s new job affirms the administration’s hostility to the rights of LGBT students at large. Criticism hardly seems absurd.