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Group informing Hanover school policy helped craft law restricting transgender athletes in other states

People seated holding signs
People hold signs both for and against policies that protect the rights of transgender students at a recent Hanover County Board of Supervisors meeting. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Earlier this month, the Hanover County School Board voted to allow the Arizona-based group Alliance Defending Freedom – which the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed an anti-LGBTQ hate group – to review a district policy pertaining to the rights of LGBTQ students in school.

Scott McCoy, interim deputy legal director for LGBTQ rights for the SPLC, says hate group designations like this aren’t taken lightly. The classifications are made when groups have beliefs or practices “that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

“Just because a group believes that marriage should be between a man and woman is not enough to qualify them as a hate group,” McCoy said. “In our opinion, it has to be more than that.”

Who is ADF and what are their views?

McCoy says ADF’s mission “is to return the United States to biblical principles from a very traditionalist, fundamentalist, Christian perspective.”

“Their worldview is that human sexuality is confined to – and biblically set by – this concept that there is a man and a woman, they have particular gender roles and they are heterosexual, cisgender. And they are to come together and procreate in a traditional marital union.”

The group earned its SPLC hate group designation by repeating false stereotypes that demonize LGBTQ people and “claiming that homosexuals or LGBTQ people are an existential threat to our civilization,” McCoy said.

ADF disputes SPLC’s hate group designation, stating that the group works “to preserve the fundamental freedoms of speech and religion for all Americans,” pointing to over 400 free-speech victories on college campuses “protecting students of varied religious faiths and political views.”

But SPLC points out that Alan Sears, one of the founders of ADF, coauthored a 2003 book titled The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today.

“They assert that LGBTQ people are more likely to be pedophiles or to groom young people, whether it's children or youth to try to convert them into the so-called ‘homosexual lifestyle,’” McCoy said. “You'll see them often asserting that the ‘gay lifestyle,’ again in quotes – or that being LGBTQ – means that we are more prone to spread disease, and that we are a risk to public health.”

ADF has defended state-enforced sterilization of transgender people, while also promoting the ineffective and harmful practice of conversion therapy and trying to bar access to medically necessary treatment for gender dysphoria.

“They believe that homosexuality – or being transgender or bisexual – are essentially a choice. And because they think that it’s a chosen lifestyle or position, their belief is that we need to make it so that that choice is a negative choice, not a positive choice,” McCoy said. “They don't want kids reading about LGBTQ people as normal individuals; they want them to be seen as diseased or defective, as threatening… as something that kids wouldn't want or shouldn't want to choose.

“They're afraid in their mind that if people see that as an acceptable choice, then more people will pick it and therefore, the fabric of society will then begin to unravel.”

What recent Virginia cases has ADF been involved in?

ADF crafted a recent law in Idaho that bars transgender students from joining sports teams that correspond with their gender identities. That law has been copied in several other states, including Montana and Utah.

Narissa Rahaman, executive director of Equality Virginia, says what's most troubling is the group’s work in recent years “further marginalizing, and further harming transgender and non-binary youth, who are already a vulnerable population.”

In Virginia, ADF is representing West Point teacher Peter Vlaming in a case that the Virginia Supreme Court has agreed to hear stemming from his refusal to use pronouns that matched a student’s gender. ADF also represented a Loudoun County teacher in a similar lawsuit against that county’s school board. And they’re representing families in Albemarle County who sued the school board over their anti-racism policies.

“All of these cases have been filed under Virginia law, not federal law,” said Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia. “And I think there's a reason for that, and it's because they're trying to, I think, really shape the boundaries of state law into something that supports their view on these issues.”

McCoy says that as civil rights for LGBTQ people advanced federally – with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality in 2015 and prohibiting sexual-identity-based discrimination in the workplace in 2020 – ADF’s legal and advocacy efforts at the state level intensified.

An SPLC report found that the number of anti-LGBTQ hate groups increased by 43% in 2019.

“I think that there is a backlash to these advances in the LGBTQ rights movement nationally, culturally, and then also in response to some of these legal victories that we have seen in the courts,” McCoy said. “They’re trying to go to the states now where they've been losing some key fights at the national level.”

What is ADF doing in Hanover County?

The Hanover County School Board recently voted to allow ADF to review a district policy pertaining to the rights of LGBTQ students in school, but the nature of the board’s relationship with the group is still unclear.

The ACLU of Virginia filed a public records request to try to get some answers about the nature of the board’s relationship with ADF; they requested copies of emails, text messages, memos and letters between the district’s school board members and senior leadership officials with ADF.

“We really want to get a sense of what the scope of the communications have been, and how much potentially those relationships have influenced the decisions of school board members,” Heilman said.

ADF did not respond on the record to VPM’s questions about the group’s involvement in Hanover County.

But regardless of the relationship’s nature, Rahaman said the board’s decision to engage ADF in review of the policy “is sending a message that they are not here to protect all students and to make schools inclusive and welcoming.”

Person posed for portrait
Kelly Merrill, whose transgender son is a student in Hanover County Public Schools. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The policy in question is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit against the school board, because it doesn’t spell out students’ right to access bathrooms that align with their gender identities.

“It doesn't say that trans kids can't use the appropriate restroom, but it doesn't say that they can,” said Kelly Merrill, who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “And so it's just a matter of whoever [school administrator] is there at the time and what it is that they want to enforce.”

Having a policy that clearly spells out the right for Merrill’s transgender son to use the bathroom that aligns with his gender identity is an equity issue. She says the absence of an explicit, detailed policy is troubling for her son, who is a rule follower.

And she says just giving him a key to use a faculty restroom isn’t enough.

“He's perceived by everyone to be sneaking into the faculty restroom,” Merrill said. “And he just wants to follow the rules. This obviously impacts his mental health, his physical health…it  impacts so much.”

Merrill and other community members attended last week’s Hanover County Board of Supervisors meeting to urge them to rethink their appointments to the school board, especially after their recent vote to engage with ADF.

The district is one of only a few in the state with appointed school boards, a system implemented after Reconstruction to limit the political influence of Black people.

“Really the only way to influence your school board is by voting for your board of supervisors position, but this is kind of a twice-removed situation,” Heilman said. “It really insulates the school board from having to be accountable to the people that they're supposed to be representing.”