Religious student faces disciplinary hearing for skipping school sex-ed program, lawyers say

A high school student in Illinois will face a disciplinary hearing this week over her refusal to participate in the school’s gender and sexuality program after her parents requested that she be exempt from the requirement. 

A national religious freedom legal nonprofit sent a demand letter to the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora on Tuesday, arguing that the three-year residential public school unlawfully denied religious accommodations to Marcail McBride to excuse her from attending the school’s Student Gender and Sexuality Program.

According to the letter sent by two First Liberty Institute lawyers, the McBrides have “repeatedly communicated” to the school that the required program “violates Marcail’s religious beliefs.”

“[Y]et the school continues to pressure Marcail, demanding that she complete the program or face punishment,” the letter states.

The legal group reports that the student was informed on Monday that she will have a disciplinary hearing this week.

Tami Armstrong, the head of the school’s public affairs office, told CP on Tuesday that school President José Torres has not received the letter via email or mail. However, she clarified that the school has reached out to the student's parents and offered an "alternative solution that will resolve this matter."

"IMSA embraces an inclusive environment where all students feel supported and are extended a sense of belonging regardless of race, class, gender, religion, accessibility, and socioeconomic status identity," the school stressed in a formal statement. "We are especially committed to a community enriched and enhanced by diverse perspectives which are recognized, respected and seen as a source of strength."

In November, the family submitted a formal written request to the school's leadership, saying the program “forces Marcail to participate in activities and discussions regarding human sexuality that require, pressure, or coerce her to violate her religious principles.”

According to the letter, students who participate in the program “use sexual language to identify sexual preferences and gender identity.”

“In identifying the ‘stages of allyship,’ the program classifies anyone who believes homosexuality is sinful or immoral as being in the same category as those who are repulsed by it or think it is ‘crazy,’” the letter, written by First Liberty Director of Litigation David Hacker and legal counsel Keisha Russell, asserts. 

“The program offers students the opportunity to become an ‘ally,’ recording the students who agree and rewarding them for their affirmation with a SafeZone sticker and pin. The program thus does not respect differing religious beliefs about gender and sexuality and pressures students to affirmatively signal their agreement with the curriculum.”

The First Liberty Institute accused school leadership of denying the family’s request and going as far as to threaten to punish the student if she did not complete it. 

Last week, Associate Director of Student Affairs, Chief Hearing Officer Dana Ginnett, sent an email ordering McBride to complete the program by Jan. 30 or face disciplinary action. 

Ginnett reportedly cited a school policy that states: “In addition to academic classes, students are expected to attend all required assemblies and meetings of a non-academic nature.”

“If a student does not attend required meetings and assemblies (and does not have an excused absence approved by a Student Affairs staff member), disciplinary action will be taken,” the policy is quoted as saying. 

On Monday, Ginnett again emailed McBride to “inform her that IMSA's Student Affairs Department would conduct a disciplinary hearing this week,” the lawyers noted. 

The First Liberty Institute, which describes itself as the “nation’s largest law firm dedicated exclusively to defending and restoring religious liberty,” argues that Illinois law orders the state not to discriminate against people based on their religion. 

“The Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act requires IMSA to refrain from placing a substantial burden on the religious exercise of its students,” the letter contends. 

“A substantial burden exists when an individual is required to act contrary to her religious beliefs to avoid facing penalties.”

The lawyers also stated that the school’s actions violate Illinois law. They cited a statute on sex education which states that “No pupil shall be required to take or participate in any class or course in comprehensive sex education if his parent or guardian submits written objection.” 

The regulation goes on to state that “refusal to take or participate in such course or program shall not be reason for suspension or expulsion of such pupil.”

Additionally, the First Liberty Institute cited the U.S. Supreme Court case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which revolved around the Christian-owned craft store chain’s objection to the Obamacare birth control mandate. 

“Since IMSA’s requirement places a substantial burden on Marcail’s religious exercise, she is entitled to an exemption from the requirement unless IMSA can prove that forcing Marcail to participate in the program is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling interest,” the letter explains. 

“By IMSA’s own admission, students may miss meetings and assemblies if they have an excused absence. As IMSA can offer such an accommodation, it must offer one to Marcail.”

In its statement to CP, ISMA assured that it spends "a great deal of time and effort to balance respect for all students’ identities."

"We take these matters seriously, and will use this as an opportunity to review all of our practices and ensure that our students feel safe and welcomed at IMSA," the statement adds. "In the spirit of valuing all voices, we have already reached out directly to the parents and offered an alternative solution that will resolve this matter. We look forward to moving ahead and working together as an IMSA community."

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