Local high schools are in hot water. Missoula County Public Schools board members recently received a packet with two main requests that address, from the requestors’ perspectives, the “trend toward moral decline and irresponsibility in our schools.” First of all, reads one letter in the packet, the “pro-gay/homosexual agenda” shouldn’t dominate next year’s Diversity Week, which takes place at Hellgate High School and Big Sky High School. Secondly, The Hellgate Lance should “[establish] journalistic standards” and refrain from publishing articles similar to three that appeared in its March 11 issue.
The requests were made by the little-known Coalition for Community Responsibility (CCR), directed by Chris Jones and Tei Nash. The CCR is 500 strong, and it is based in a city that likes to view itself as the bastion of liberal politics in Montana: Yours Truly, Missoula.
“Surprising, isn’t it?” says Jones. He isn’t being sarcastic.
“It’s funny,” he says. “When we go to Helena and lobby, the rest of the state looks at Missoula as the lost city. We are the liberal city in Montana. Just because it’s the most liberal city in Montana doesn’t mean there aren’t any conservatives here.”
Jones and Nash don’t like the “Christian Right” label applied by the media. They don’t like the label because the CCR, they say, has broad-based membership that includes liberals. On behalf of the doctors, lawyers, teachers and business people, Jones and Nash say they speak in favor of “moral standards.”
The CCR, incorporated as a religious non-profit organization last June, is informed by a socially conservative agenda. In large part, the group’s actions include vocal opposition to “the homosexual lifestyle.” Jones, Nash and presumably their constituents believe firmly that being gay is a choice, and a poor one. They do not believe that biology determines sexual preference. During the last legislative session, Nash and Jones testified against HB-52, which would have expanded Montana’s hate crime law to protect people victimized based on sexual orientation; HB-607, which would have legalized same-sex civil marriages; and HB-692, which would have extended health benefits to unmarried partners. Last year, CCR sued Missoula County after it voted to provide benefits to domestic partners (the suit is pending).
The group’s most recent actions are geared toward change at the high school level. CCR distributed its packet to board trustees in preparation for a May 11 board meeting.
The letter regarding Diversity Week, which event addresses topics such as Polynesian culture, gender discrimination in sports, and Islam, charges that a “pro-gay/homosexual” agenda has unjustifiably dominated Diversity Week. Jones and Nash would be pleased to whittle down the amount of airtime that homosexuality receives during Diversity Week and include coverage of the “risks” of the homosexual “lifestyle.” A separate letter to Superintendent Jim Clark asks that Wayne Seitz, journalism teacher at Hellgate High School and advisor to The Hellgate Lance, be “removed from his position of authority immediately.” Another letter in the packet addresses Seitz directly. It condemns three Lance articles—two “News quirks” that refer to genitals and one concert review. The review is in the form of an editorial that includes four-letter-words in asterisks in its condemnation of rapper Ludacris’ socially degrading message and complacent audience. Jones and Nash agree with the editorial; they oppose the sexual references and asterisked references to profanity. “We are serious in our intent to eliminate any possibility of replication in content of the articles noted,” reads the letter to Seitz. “If any further involvement needs to be taken in this process, then our attorneys will proceed.”
The declaration could be interpreted as threat of a lawsuit against Seitz or The Hellgate Lance, but Nash and Jones say CCR was simply offering legal assistance with defining standards for obscenity.
During last week’s school board meeting, Nash and Jones, as planned, asked for the board’s assistance in redirecting the course of Diversity Week and regulating the content of the newspaper.
“Censor,” they say, is not their word. They see a distinction between the demand for “standards” at the paper and censorship.
“Our goal isn’t to be the media censor in Missoula, Montana,” says Jones.
“We’re not speaking about censorship,” confirms Nash, a Missoula native. “We’re talking about standards.”
Nash appears frustrated that no one understood this distinction during the meeting. Asked why CCR’s standards should be imposed on students, Nash says the reasons are clear. First of all, he says, the Lance is a high school paper. Parents, he says, pay taxes and should have some say in the messages their children encounter at school.
Nash and Jones are by no means leading a flock of moderates kicking and screaming from center to right. Rather, the two men have witnessed an upwelling of support for their viewpoints. Hearing community opposition to the same-sex benefits suit at the University of Montana prompted the group’s formation, says Jones. The two believe that the surge of support from the right is a cry against cultural degradation, of which homosexuality, they believe, is a component. Nash and Jones may not be off base when they say that the conservative right has a strengthening voice in Missoula. The CCR was not instrumental in the recent unseating of school board trustees Colleen Rogers and Suzette Dussault, but Nash sees results of the elections as evidence that the community is making its biases known.
During the board meeting, trustee Drake Lemm asked that a board committee address the CCR’s concerns and review the content of the Lance—an item tentatively scheduled for discussion on the May 26 committee agenda.
“In the past,” says Jones, “the conservatives just happened to be a silent group of people.”
Now, they’re getting louder, and each time they speak, Jones says they receive two or three postcards—hate mail, including death threats. He isn’t sure whether social conservatives are a majority in Missoula or not.
“But,” he says, “it’s pretty close. Probably 50–50. You’d be surprised.”