May 9, 2009

Everybody Involved Insists On Proving Themselves To Be Jackholes, Part XIV

Working in the legal industry often exposes me to situations where I am listening to a client convey a tale of woe and suffering, one in which everybody involved (except my interlocutor) has gone out of their way to be a gigantic, inconsiderate, and arrogant jerk. And almost inevitably, as soon as I've finished gathering information and possibly a settlement offer from this aggrieved victim, I have to turn around and talk to a different person involved in the dispute, who tells me that no, they are the innocent victim who always acted in good faith and with good moral intent, and the person I was just speaking to is in fact the architect of both the specific misfortune at issue in the lawsuit as well as a fairly substantial amount of the generalized suffering of the civilized world.

My response to this situation is generally to tell everyone involved that if we're going to settle the dispute, we need to adopt a "no bad guys" attitude, one in which we set aside the moral or dignitary slights of the other parties and just try and go forward without assigning ethical worth to whatever it is that they are complaining about. But in fact, nearly every time I say this, what I'm really thinking is that it's a "no good guys" situation, one in which everyone's an asshole.

So then I'm enjoying a mild morning in my back yard, drinking some coffee, eating a nice ripe pear, watching my dogs spar, and catching up on my blogging. And I come across a lead to this press release from a right-wing public interest law firm, the Pacific Justice Institute. Here's the story.

Castro Valley is a suburban city, located on the southeaster part of the Bay Area. The Castro Valley Unified School District runs the public schools there. The District invited a lesbian minister to come and speak to its math and science classes. She gave a talk to the classes entitled "Out for Good."

Some parents got bugs up their butts about this and apparently wanted to sue the District for having a lesbian in the same room as their precious little snowflakes. I have to infer that the issue here is homosexuality from a line in the press release which indicates that "According to students, the minister spoke about her lesbian wedding and similar events under the heading 'Out for Good.'" The author of the press release went out of his or her way to indicate that the speaker was a lesbian, that she had a "lesbian" wedding, and also spoke of "similar events." Presumably, had a heterosexual minister spoken to these math and science classes, these complainants would not have objected.

Of course, even a cursory look at the law would reveal that they get zero (meaning zilch, nada, zippo, donut-hole, goose-egg, aught, scratch, no-love-here) say in what kinds of activities the District gets to pursue under the rubric of providing education to its students. I can only presume that their lawyers possessed a modicum of responsibility and have told them this. So they had to content themselves with presenting a Public Records Act request to find all correspondence, contracts, and other documents relating to the minister's activities at the District.

And the District has complied with this spoiling-for-a-fight attitude by refusing to cough up the records.

So here's my "jerks all around" take on things.

First, the minister. I'll assume for purposes of this post that her presentation was appropriate for the ages of the children to whom it was delivered, and if that is the case, she is the least culpable of all of the parties involved here. I also don't know (because the District won't produce documents) whether she demanded, was offered, or accepted a speaking fee. It seems fair to assume that yes, she was paid for her time. Which is okay, but still she should understand that being a religious minister, going in to a public school, and making a presentation about homosexuality, is pulling a pin on a live grenade and rolling it into a crowd. She's instigating this sort of a fight. I have little love for instigators as a general rule.

Second, the parents. Okay, so a speaker came and spoke to your kids and you have some moral qualms about the subject matter of her speech. Fine. The solution is to teach your kids the things you want them to learn. Teach your kids how to question what this authority figure told them, how to draw their own conclusions, and what principles they should use to guide their thoughts. The solution is not to run to court, the solution is not to hire lawyers, the solution is not to get a bug up your butt about the whole thing and thereby draw attention to it in front of your kids. She isn't going to make your daughters into lesbians, and the fact that she is a lesbian does not make her inherently evil. Relax.

Third, the District. What are they thinking? They hired a religious minister to speak to public school kids. What's more, they hired this minister to speak to science and math classes about a social issue. This isn't science, it isn't math. And then, when they got a public records act demand, they stonewalled. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Further, they did it to bring forth a speaker about a highly controversial political subject, same-sex marriages, and apparently expected that this would be hunky-dory with everyone. Just because they can use their power this way does not mean that it is wise for them to do so. A little discretion and thought should have gone into this decision. A public agency is going to lose that sort of a battle, every time. Cough up the documents, and don't draw a lawsuit you're certain to lose. I can only assume that the District either ignored its attorneys' advice or instructed its attorneys to search for any reason to not comply with the law that they could think of, which would be at least on the edge of bad faith legal conduct.

And finally, the Pacific Justice Institute itself. This is not a pot that needs stirring. This needs to settle down and die, it needs to become a non-controversy and go away. No one will benefit from this legal fight, the public will not be served or benefitted in any fashion either from the controversy or from any of the possible outcomes of this dispute. The only thing that will result from this is a consumption of scarce judicial resources, the expenditure of attorney time that could have been spent solving real problems, and debatably, increased demands on an already-overburdened public purse. And they seem to be really pushing on this whole lesbian angle which strongly suggests to me that lesbians and gays are being demonized for the political and financial gain of the PJI. Having been involved in this game early in my career, I know that the point of the lawsuit is the ability to issue press releases whenever they do anything and the ability of the PJI to brag to its supporters about the work they're doing in fundraising letters. By using the legal system to go after anything that can be slapped with the label "gay," they'll get increased fundraising, or at least they think they will. And it's doubtful that anyone at PJI has bothered to think through just how awful that state of affairs really is.

So I'd like to thank the Castro Valley Unified School District, the Pacific Justice Institute, a short-sighted and politically-motivated minister, and some bigoted parents in the East Bay for completely ruining my otherwise-enjoyable morning.

1 comment:

trumwill said...

I am largely in agreement.

The primary issue here for me, oddly enough, is the fact that it was science and math. I'd even consider coming to the district's defense it was sociology (which is -a- relevent and -b- an elective). By doing it the way that they did, though, they invited this. They fed into and validated the paranoia of Christian conservative parents that public schools consider wiping out their moral values as part of their mission. As you point out, schools have a lot of latitude with what they can do... but when they create animosity like this it makes it harder to ask the parents to trust the schools when it comes to delivering (for instance) sex-ed.

If I were a parent, I would be a little agitated mostly at the wasted time. Maybe the wasted money if there was a substantial speaking fee. But not really the content since I won't be teaching my kids that homosexuality is immoral (and regarding sex-ed I'm more worried that what the schools deliver will be incomplete rather than excessively comprehensive). And of course I wish they wouldn't teach their kids to believe that homosexuality is wrong. Even so, I can at least understand why this sort of thing has people up-in-arms.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.