An anti-LGBTQ church has 'planted' itself in a New York public high school
It's part of a nationwide effort to recruit young people into Christian nationalist ideology. How is this happening even in blue America?
Screenshot from the Salt Network website.
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Radiant Church is part of The Salt Network, which describes itself as "a family of churches" that "plant churches in major university centers." The churches have different names, but they all adhere to the aims of the network.
That aim appears to be to recruit college students into a radical, anti-LGBTQ Christian nationalist movement. According to the Salt Network website, they "have 24 established network churches and 5 upcoming plants." The site alludes to the ultimate goal: "There are over 400 major universities across North America." The network appears to draw funding from wealthy evangelicals, some of whom are "planters."
What is perhaps most alarming about Radiant Church, however, is its address and the location where it holds Sunday services. On the church’s Facebook page, that address is listed as 3100 E. Genesee Street in Syracuse, New York. That is actually the address of Nottingham High School, which is part of the Syracuse public school system.
And every Sunday, the Nottingham High auditorium, in the very Democratic city of Syracuse, in the very Democratic state of New York, is where the anti-LGBTQ Radiant congregation of 150 or so gathers to worship—and where the church takes donations from those in attendance. The church has no other office or location. The church has even baptized members in the high school’s swimming pool!
The Syracuse Post-Standard broke the story last Sunday about this extreme violation of separation of church and state, investigating exactly why an evangelical church targeting college students at Syracuse University and other colleges and universities among the many located in Central New York has quietly been housed inside a public high school since January of this year.
It wasn’t until April, when some parents "dropped their kids off for musical rehearsal on a Sunday," that parents became aware of the church service when they "found church members set up in the entryway."
The church pastor was interviewed by the Post-Standard:
"Do I think homosexuality is a sin?’’ Jason Lankford, lead pastor at Radiant Church, asked. "Yes."
But he said the church welcomes gay people to its services and does not judge the sin of homosexuality any differently than pride and anger.
"We love them. We care for them. We do believe that Scripture teaches, along with a plethora of other things, that LGBTQ, same sex marriage, all that, that it is not the way we were designed. But it’s not as if we are teaching that every single week."
The same old "love the sinner, hate the sin" bullshit that has demonized LGBTQ people for decades. While Radiant doesn’t have any reference to homosexuality on its website, other churches in the Salt Network most certainly do, and it’s clear the beliefs are shared across the network. City Church in Tallahassee, for example, states Christians should oppose "all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography."
How could a public school, mandated by law in New York State to protect LGBTQ students from discrimination and hate, house a hateful church on its premises?
Many parents are asking the same question. Tina and Melissa Leslie-Fox had dropped their daughter Mia off for that Sunday music rehearsal and saw the church service occurring out on the lawn under tents, having been moved from the auditorium to accommodate the rehearsal. They told the Post-Standard the church should not be there.
"With the national climate right now, and all of the anti-trans laws that are being introduced all over the country, tensions are high, anxiety is high for this community," Tina Leslie-Fox said.
Another parent called out the transparent hypocrisy of Radiant Church and its pastor.
"You can’t say you accept and welcome all people and then tell people, ‘Oh, well, your entire existence is a sin. And we’ll help you with that," Annabel Otts, a parent who wrote the superintendent, told the paper, adding, "As a school district, the Syracuse City School District has vowed to support our LGBTQIA+ students, have vowed to stand up for all students."
Radiant Church was "planted" in Syracuse by about 25 members who moved from Ames, Iowa, another college town and a place where the Salt Network began with Cornerstone Church. The Post-Standard explained the motive:
Nottingham [High School] was selected because of its proximity to Syracuse University and other local colleges, affordability and large space that will give the church room to grow, according to [Pastor] Lankford. He hopes to be holding Sunday service at the school for years to come.
Nottingham High School’s superintendent, Anthony Davis, sounds like he’s sympathetic to the Christian nationalist agenda. He told the paper that, while he cares about parents’ complaints, he believes groups in the community should be able to use the school’s facilities.
"I know some folks are having trouble with what some people believe," Davis told the paper. "And I think that’s a dangerous road for us to go down. Because many people have different beliefs."
Seriously? So, do we just allow neo-Nazis to meet in the school for a weekly adoration of white supremacy because they have "different beliefs"? Does Davis have no idea that what this church promotes is harmful to the very students for whom the school is supposed to be a safe educational facility?
I don’t profess to know Davis’ beliefs, but this really begins to sound like a shady, subversive way to help the church "plant" itself in Syracuse. Josh Beardall, the school district’s director of staff relations, told the paper that the school couldn’t deny the church the use of the high school under state and federal law if it allowed other groups to use the school’s spaces.
But legal experts quoted by the Post-Standard disputed that. While two Supreme Court rulings over the past 40 years affirmed that religious groups can’t be barred from public school space for Bible study groups or to show religious-oriented films—contending that this is for free speech and educational purposes—the most recent court ruling, in 2011, by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes New York State, ruled that using a public school for a worship service is another matter entirely.
"The prohibition against using school facilities for the conduct of religious worship services bars a type of activity," the court said. "It does not discriminate against any point of view." In that case, Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education, the religious group that was barred from using a school for worship services appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court declined to take it, thus allowing the appeals court ruling to stand, affirming its decision.
In the wake of the Post-Standard’s report, the Syracuse teachers union this week called on the school to sever ties with the church, whose contract is up for renewal at the end of June, even though the pastor hopes to be "planted" there for years. It’s unclear what might happen now that this has been exposed and many parents in the city are speaking out, in addition to the Syracuse Teachers Association and local Democratic politicians.
But here’s what I worry about: 2011—when the Supreme Court allowed the lower court ruling to stand—was a long time ago, before the fall of Roe v. Wade and a radical Christian nationalist Supreme Court. At that time, the court had four liberals and Justice Anthony Kennedy, known for his pro-LGBTQ rulings, as the swing vote. If Nottingham High School ends its arrangement with Radiant Church and the church sues—or if a similar case pops up somewhere else—what might happen if it gets to the Supreme Court?
This court has been ruling in favor of anti-LGBTQ bigots under the guise of "religious liberty" for several years now. And the court’s conservatives appear ready to hand a victory to a Colorado website designer—who was never even challenged by any LGBTQ customer—who wants the right to turn away queer people if any come to her. The court’s decision could come any day now.
Whether or not the court rules on a technicality that spares us this time—including the fact that the web designer was never challenged—there’s no question the majority of the court is on the side of those who couch their bigotry as religious freedom, casting themselves as victims.
The same is true of several of the appeals courts, which are stacked by Trump-appointed judges. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, just as radical as the Supreme Court, ruled just yesterday that a Christian-owned wellness center in Texas is exempt from federal law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
"Being forced to employ someone to represent the company who behaves in a manner directly violative of the company’s convictions is a substantial burden," the court ruled. Adam Pulver, an attorney for Public Citizen, noted that "the decision certainly narrowed some of the most troubling aspects of the district court’s decision. However, it still leaves a roadmap for other employers to discriminate."
Indeed, that roadmap is via the "religious liberty" claim, with bigots posed as victims.
Will we eventually see extremist anti-LGBTQ evangelical churches "planting" themselves inside public schools all across blue America, protected in doing so by the Supreme Court? The idea doesn’t seem very far-fetched.