Merrimack, NH -- On June 3, 1996, after ten months of heated controversy, and a bitterly contested election, the Merrimack School Board repealed the anti-gay Policy 6540 passed on August 14, 1995. The assembled townspeople gave the Board a standing ovation.
The policy, proposed by then-Chairman Chris Ager, was identical to the failed amendment sponsored by US Senators Bob Smith (R-NH) and Jesse Helms (R-NC) to the 1994 Education Funding Act. Written by Rev. Lou Sheldon, of the California-based Traditional Values Coalition, Policy 6540 provoked a lawsuit filed in US District Court by parents and teachers claiming violations of First and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the US Constitution. The far-reaching implications of the Sheldon-Ager (Smith-Helms) policy brought worldwide media attention.
"Now that the hostilities of the past two years are subsiding, the healing process is beginning," observed School Board Chair Ken Coleman.
"The people are drawing together once again to solve their problems as a community. This has been the tradition of our town, and that is why we have been able to build a school system recognized around the state for its quality and efficient use of taxes. To watch the return to this tradition makes me proud to serve as an elected official in Merrimack," Coleman said.
"The Sheldon-Ager (Smith-Helms) policy clearly did not represent the values of Merrimack. In retrospect, all the controversial issues of the past two years, such as school prayer, creationism, and this infamous anti-gay policy, came from the outside. Sheldon's personal involvement and numerous trips to speak at local churches are only the most visible of many smoking guns in the Radical Religious Right's battle to subvert our schools. The people objected to this intrusion on local control, and have taken back control of their School Board. The power of democracy has brought out the noblest qualities of the people of Merrimack."
The elections of Coleman and Brenda Grady in 1995, and Rosemarie Rung in 1996 proved beyond doubt that the people of Merrimack never supported the extremist agenda advocated by Ager's majority coalition. "Whenever the voters had an opportunity to make their wishes known, they rejected the policies of the old majority coalition in the strongest possible terms," commented Rung.
"In 1995, Coleman and Grady won landslide victories in a record turnout, sending a clear message that the town did not support the Ager coalition. This year, the voters had an opportunity to change the fundamental policy direction of the School Board. I ran against the old majority coalition and won by a two to one margin (68 percent) in the largest turnout in town history (150 percent of last year's record). The people have spoken loudly and clearly, and have mandated a return to our tradition of excellence."
As her first official act, Rung moved to repeal Policy 6540, saying "This policy never should have been enacted." Superintendent James O'Neil remarked that no other district in the state or nation had ever enacted such a policy and none had followed our example. Rung also proposed Policy 6541 to replace it. "I wish we could simply repeal 6540, but we need to clear the air after all the unfounded rumors that have circulated around town," Rung said.
During the campaign, she discovered that many people believed the purpose of Policy 6540 was to prevent the schools from "promoting" homosexuality, or from persuading students to "choose" to become homosexual. People who have given serious thought to their own sexual orientation understand that sexual orientation is not a voluntary or arbitrary choice. Others needed reassurance the schools would not "promote" homosexuality.
Policy 6541 states: "The Merrimack school district shall have no program or activity which is intended to promote sexual activity or any sexual orientation." This policy permits factual discussion of sexuality without infringing on Constitutional rights, pre-judging anyone, or imposing sectarian moral values on the public schools.
After the repeal of the Sheldon-Ager (Smith-Helms) policy, Vice Chair Brenda Grady called for a return to the traditional focus on education. "More than any other action taken by this body, Policy 6540 has diverted attention from the legitimate business of the School Board," Grady commented. "For two years, the Ager coalition dabbled with political 'hot-button' issues. At the same time, new curricula in several disciplines remained stalled in committees, lacking encouragement and proper direction from the Board.
The old majority coalition actually removed analytical thinking and problem solving skills from the basic goals of the school system. Now, we can improve the quality of education."
Merrimack resident Randal L Kottwitz, an education equity advocate, expressed appreciation for the repeal of the Sheldon-Ager (Smith-Helms) policy. "Within one week, we heard from the people, the church, and the courts," he said. "Rung's landslide victory sent the message that the American people reject the politics of hate. The Episcopal Church declined to try Bishop Righter on heresy charges, sending the message that people of faith do not condone hate as a moral value. The US Supreme Court ruled Colorado Amendment 2 unconstitutional, affirming the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection for all citizens.
"Taken together, these three landmark events show that discrimination violates the moral values of the American people," concluded Kottwitz. "The people of Merrimack set aside their differences and worked together to defeat the politics of hate, fear, and discrimination. Armed with nothing more than their innate goodness, the compassionate, loving people who live in this wonderful town opened their hearts and defeated the extremists decisively and without hesitation. In winning back their town, they set an example for other communities throughout the nation to follow."