Culture war rages in southwest Minnesota over rainbow flag

By: - February 24, 2020 10:58 pm

This is the flag that has caused so much controversy in Marshall.

MARSHALL, LYON COUNTY — A rainbow flag displayed for a public middle school diversity project has met fierce opposition and a threat of legal action from religious leaders.

At two packed school board meetings earlier this month, Marshall students, parents, teachers and community members debated whether displaying the LGBTQ flag offers positive support for students or promotes what detractors called an “immoral lifestyle.”

The school board is expected to make a decision about the flag controversy at their meeting on March 2.  

The rancor indicated that in some rural communities the decades-old cultural conflicts about sexual orientation and religious tenets remain a flashpoint — even as other parts of the state and nation have moved on following the Obergefell v. Hodges decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that legalized gay marriage. 

The LGBTQ pride flag was hung in the Marshall Middle School cafeteria alongside other national and cultural identity flags over winter break. Complaints from Christian leaders in the town followed. A man from the Somali Muslim religious community in Marshall also objected, though other Muslim residents said he did not represent their views.

The Rev. Don LeClere of Marshall Evangelical Free Church led a group of pastors opposing the rainbow flag. In a letter to the school board, he said the flag is a lifestyle symbol that discriminates against heterosexual students. 

The flag “subjugates (students) to an official school activity that includes the promotion and inclusion of only one lifestyle that violates students’ freedom of religion,” LeClere said. He and seven other Marshall pastors who signed the letter said the flag also violates Title IX laws, which prohibit discrimination in public education on the basis of sex.

Minneapolis attorney Bill Mohrman argued at the Feb. 18 school board meeting that the display violated citizens’ constitutional rights.  

“If the school board does not put into place a viewpoint-neutral policy that will determine how flags go up in the schools without regard to the viewpoints of the people in the school district, [it] is an unequivocal violation of the constitutional rights of the citizens of this town,” he said. 

“Assuming we are retained,” he said, “we will file a lawsuit in federal district court against the school board to ensure that everybody’s rights to have a say in what symbols go up in a public building they support with their tax dollars are recognized.”

Rainbow flag supporters were equally passionate. Parents spoke of struggling to help their LGBTQ children find acceptance in a small town. They described bullying, depression and self-harm. One parent said his child tried several times to commit suicide. “After the seventh time, I lost count,” the man said.

Spanish teacher Karrie Alberts, adviser to Marshall High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance, said the flag was intended to provide students a sense of belonging and comfort in an otherwise hostile environment. “Kids can only hear so many times this public shaming and hurtful online comments. They cannot hear that they are ungodly, or that they are second rate, or that they should be hidden away in some other room,” she said. “Life is tough enough without being told there’s something wrong with you.”

Karrie Alberts, Marshall High School spanish teacher and adviser to the Gay Straight Alliance.

Marshall High School senior Devon Palmer said having a rainbow flag in the middle school when he was a student there would have helped. “Kids in the LGBTQ community live in constant fear of judgment and abandonment due to the stigma that is placed on them,” he said. “Kids can walk by that flag and take pride in the fact that the school they attend has its hand on their shoulder guiding them through this confusing time in their life.”

Marshall Public School District administrators and school board members have said little about the issue since they were threatened with the lawsuit. District Superintendent Scott Monson did not return calls and school board members declined to comment.

After the first public forum Feb. 3, school board member Bill Mulso said he understood the flag project was a school leadership initiative and that the school board was not involved. “I became aware of it when contacted by constituents with opinions one way or another,” he said.  

“Personally, I think the idea of the flag project has a lot of merit, but the execution was probably a little flawed,” Mulso said.  “Our public schools are so wonderfully diverse that it’s really disheartening to see anything create divisiveness in an environment that we pride ourselves on as being welcoming and inclusive to everyone.”

Other flags hung in the middle school cafeteria include symbols of African tribes, Karen refugees, and other cultural and national identities. The school has obtained flags representing the autistic community and the Special Olympics, but have put them aside until the rainbow flag controversy is settled. 

The pastors’ group proposed that if the rainbow flag stays up, they would add the Gadsden flag and the National Organization for Marriage flag to the display. But it’s unlikely these flags will be hung. The Gadsden flag was designed during the American Revolution and depicts a snake with the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” For whatever its Revolutionary War origins, it has become associated with the provocative politics of the right wing Tea Party of a decade ago. 

The National Organization for Marriage was founded in 2007 to pass California Proposition 8 prohibiting same-sex marriage in the state. 

Julie Allen taught in the Marshall school district for 34 years and said she supports the LGBTQ pride flag display. Her son struggled with  his sexual identity for years, she said, until he came out as gay in college. “Had Tim sat in that cafeteria in the middle school and seen a flag of support, I believe our path would not have been so dark and scary, and he would have realized he is a great guy just the way God made him,” she said. 

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Ruthe Thompson
Ruthe Thompson

Ruthe Thompson teaches a variety of classes in literature, writing and composition at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.