When students returned to the classrooms at King’s High School in Shoreline last week, something was missing.
Several beloved teachers were no longer there. At least five either felt pushed out or voluntarily quit the private, interdenominational Christian school over summer break in protest of an administrative mandate that they perceived as requiring them to disavow same-sex relationships, both on the job and in their personal lives — and they objected to anti-gay language from Jacinta Tegman, the new leader of King’s parent organization, CRISTA Ministries.
In an interview Friday, administrators at CRISTA and King’s said that families had unenrolled two students in response to what they described not as a new but clarified stance.
“This may not be the place for everybody,” Tegman said. “So if it’s not, we just want to make that clear so people can make a good decision whether they want to stay.”
The school’s public-facing materials tread a careful line: While they mostly don’t mention LGBTQ+ issues explicitly, they do make allusions to things like “the historical biblical standards of morality” or state clearly that the ministries believe “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” are “inerrant in their original writings” and “of supreme and final authority.”
Even before the departures over summer, some faculty members had decided to leave King’s amid what they described as a growing tension over how inclusive the school culture should be. Administrators disputed the number of departures — which Tegman said did not register as “earthquake level” — and denied that they asked any teachers to leave, quietly.
Some did sign nondisclosure agreements in order to receive severance pay — a customary practice at King’s, according to Tegman.
A more than $100 million operation, the Shoreline-based CRISTA runs private schools, retirement communities and radio stations in addition to its international relief work. The schools serve more than 1,300 students, from preschool to high-school.
Tegman, who previously fought to repeal a state gay-rights law and led opposition to same-sex marriage in Washington, took the helm of CRISTA as its president and CEO in January. She centered her first State of CRISTA address on the need for practical and spiritual reform at the organization.
Echoing biblical language, she specifically cited CRISTA’s belief that “sexual intimacy is confined within the marriage of one man and woman,” according to a transcript of her June address.
A month later, head of King’s schools Eric Rasmussen sent an email to families in July to reaffirm the school’s core values, and repeated Tegman’s line that sexual expression only occurs within a heterosexual marriage.
That email prompted questions from faculty and staff about whether they could continue to work at King’s if they don’t fully align with the stances discussed in Tegman’s address. Rasmussen noted that faculty sign a doctrinal statement that details CRISTA’s beliefs — including that the scriptures are inerrant and of final authority — in their annual contract. (That document hasn’t changed since 2007, he wrote in a separate email to a teacher who resigned.)
“You can continue to work at King’s if you are a Christian, confirm understanding and alignment with our doctrinal statement and willingly conduct your personal life and professional role of educating our students in a manner that is not in disunity with King’s theological beliefs,” Rasmussen wrote in a follow-up email to all King’s staff in August.
Since then, students and families have started groups on social media to express their support for children who identify with the LGBTQ+ community and to protest the new direction at King’s school as “Anti-LGBT+”. (LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, with the + denoting everything along the gender and sexuality spectrum.)
State and federal anti-discrimination laws offer an exemption for religious organizations, many of which hire people only of their faith. In Washington, the state prohibits other employers from discriminating against someone based on their sexual orientation, including gender identity, or their opposition to discriminatory practices.
As to whether individuals can disagree with CRISTA and remain an employee, Tegman said Friday, “My question back is: Can you sign this [doctrinal] statement? This is what the conditions of employment are in a Christian organization.”
Megan Troutman, an English teacher, objected to those conditions and worried that such statements from the leaders of King’s and CRISTA risked hurting students questioning their sexual identity. She ultimately resigned and now has a job teaching English at a high school in Bellevue.
“Working at King’s was an amazing experience,” said Troutman.
“However, I cannot, in good faith or conscience, teach in a place that creates policies that negatively impact an entire section of the student population,” she added. “I could not be complicit in a policy that could harm or ostracize any student.”
Colby Crispeno, 17, agreed. He attended King’s since preschool, but eventually decided to leave at the end of his sophomore year after coming out to his family as gay.
Even as he struggled with depression and anxiety at King’s, he found solace in a family friend who taught there. She too left the school over the summer.
“The one reason why I really love King’s is the teachers,” Crispeno said.
With the teachers’ departure, Crispeno said he worried about students who might have questions about their identity but could no longer rely on trusted teachers for help.
“You can have a different opinion. That’s fine,” he said. “You don’t have to accept me or the LGBTQ+ community, but when you’re the head of the school and this decision brings some youth closer to suicide, you lose my respect.”
In a back-to-school message sent to King’s families last month, Rasmussen and Tegman tried to calm the “voices of concern.” They described King’s as a warm and welcoming environment for all, but noted that conversations about “these topics” would not be tolerated in classrooms or in private.
“Some may disagree with our stance on some specific issues, or that we have had to take a stance at all,” they wrote.
But on Friday, Rasmussen stressed they have not encouraged employees to turn away students with questions. And before school started last week, King’s faculty completed training on how to listen to and empathize with students.
The school, however, approved a textbook for use in its 11th grade Bible class that refers to homosexuality as “unnatural’ and “a result of the failure to worship God.”
“We teach and live a compassionate and loving response towards all people regardless of any potential differences of opinion,” the school said in a statement.
Zoe Graff graduated from King’s in June.
A month later, eight teachers gathered at one of their former colleague’s home to listen to Graff read more than a dozen letters she had collected from LGBTQ+ students, faculty and alumni about their experiences at King’s.
“At the very least, I thought [the principal] would want to prevent the hurt,” Graff said. “You don’t have to support these people, but I know you care about these students.”
Principal Bob Ruhlman did not attend the gathering. But he said reading the letters brought him to tears.
“Our hearts hurt from that,” Rasmussen said. “We want to learn from that.”
Seattle Times staff writer Nina Shapiro contributed to this report.