Inside the anti-LGBTQ effort to put Christianity back in schools

UniqueThis 60 October 4, 2023

In Suffolk, Virginia, community members interrupted a school board meeting in August by reciting the Lord’s Prayer to protest a plan meant to make schools welcoming for transgender students.

And in California that same month, a school board member who had advanced a policy banning LGBTQ pride flags from classrooms told followers they were engaged in “a spiritual battle” for their children.

LGBTQ rights advocates warn that the rhetoric emanating out of some churches, where faith leaders and politicians have baselessly accused LGBTQ people of sexually “grooming” children, could lead to violence.

“To watch faith weaponized in that way, I think is really scary,” said Ricardo Martinez, the CEO of Equality Texas, an LGBTQ advocacy group. “That’s not a faith I recognize. It’s not the empathy, the compassion, the grace that I learned attending my church.”

The fight to impose conservative Christian values in schools is also being waged at the state level.

This summer, the Florida Department of Education approved content created by the Christian conservative advocacy group PragerU Kids for use in public schools, including a video instructing that America was founded as a Christian nation.

In Oklahoma, Ryan Walters, the state’s Republican education chief, has been pushing to hang the Ten Commandments in classrooms, approved the country’s first religious charter school and adopted regulations requiring educators to tell parents if their child changes their gender identity.

“This is a war for the souls of our kids,” Walters declared shortly after his election last year.

Ryan Walters
Oklahoma Superintendent Ryan Walters has pushed to hang the Ten Commandments in school classrooms. Sue Ogrocki / AP file

Texas state Rep. Nate Schatzline, a freshman Republican legislator and former youth pastor, staged a Christian worship gathering inside the state Capitol on the first day of the 2023 legislative session. As his supporters sang and spoke in tongues, Schatzline prayed for God to reign over “everything that goes on in this building.”

In the months that followed, Schatzline and other Republicans in Texas passed bills banning gender-affirming medical care for minors, restricting drag performances and giving public schools authority to hire religious chaplains to serve as unlicensed counselors.

In an interview with NBC News, Schatzline said he supports public policies rooted in Christian morals, which he described as the foundation of American society. While denying that Republicans want to force their religion on anyone, Schatzline said he does not believe in the separation of church and state as it’s been applied by federal courts in recent decades.

The idea was meant “to keep the state out of the church,” Schatzline said, “not to keep the church out of the state.”

This push comes at a time of growing optimism among evangelical activists who have long held the Christian nationalist view that America’s laws should be based on biblical teachings. With the U.S. Supreme Court now controlled by a conservative supermajority, religious fundamentalists see an opportunity to tear down legal guardrails separating religion from public life.

A tight portrait of David Barton wearing a cowboy hat.
Self-taught historian David Barton has spent decades arguing that America was founded as a Christian nation and that public schools should reflect evangelical values.David Calvert / Getty Images file

David Barton, a self-taught historian and founder of WallBuilders, a group dedicated to promoting the idea that America was founded to be an explicitly Christian nation, told a crowd in Grapevine this spring that given the Supreme Court’s makeup, local schools could now confidently restore classroom prayer and go back to teaching the biblical creation narrative. 

One goal of restoring religious traditions in schools, Barton said to an audience that included local school board members, was to draw a legal challenge that could serve as a test case to overturn the separation of church and state.

“Hopefully somebody will sue you if you do this, because that’s what we need,” he said. “We can win at that, and the whole nation wins as a result.”

Barton has at other times pointed to increases in the number of youth identifying as transgender as a leading sign of moral decline in America, which he attributes to the lack of prayer in schools.

Protecting children from transgender identity was also a major theme in June at the National Association of Christian Lawmakers conference in Lynchburg, Virginia. The group was founded in 2019 to “bring federal, state and local lawmakers together in support of clear biblical principles.”

Jason Rapert, a former Arkansas state senator and the group’s founder, tied his organization’s Christian mission to the fight against trans rights — and used incendiary and misleading language about gender-affirming medical care to make his case.

“With Democrats and leftists that are advocating cutting penises off of little boys and breasts off of little girls, we have reached a level of debauchery and immorality that is at biblical proportions,” Rapert told reporters

Although the number of trans minors receiving puberty blockers and hormones has increased in recent years, data shows only a tiny percentage of transgender teens receive mastectomies each year, and even fewer receive genital surgeries.