With prodding from Washington state school officials and a group of local students, Sunnyside High School has formed the Gay Straight Alliance.
Assistant Principal Ryan Maxwell said a move towards forming the club started two months ago.
He said an audit by state education officials, combined with concerns by some students, showed that "...our high school gay kids felt that they didn't have a safe environment."
The club held its first meeting last week and advisor Dan Thomas, a high school English teacher, said about 20 students attended.
Thomas, who readily admits to being "straight," or heterosexual, said the topic of a club for gay and lesbian students had come up in the past during school improvement discussions. "At that time I heard there was a group of students looking to form a club," he said.
One of those students, sophomore Thailee Paxton, said she has heard of situations where students who were gay or lesbian have been discriminated against or harassed.
During the interview with Paxton and Thomas, which Maxwell supervised in his office, the assistant principal turned away an on-the-record request as to whether Paxton was straight or gay.
Thomas said both gay and straight students are in the club and do not have to reveal which they are in order to participate. The club is also open to bisexual and transgender students. He said he did not know how many students at the school are gay.
Thomas said that the club also intends to dispel myths, such as that the alliance is funded by tax dollars. He said any money the club spends it will generate through fundraisers. In addition he said the club also considers it a myth that homosexuality is acquired or is a lifestyle.
Thomas acknowledged that Sunnyside does have a large base of churches in the community, but noted that just as many churches that oppose homosexuality also support it.
As to Christians or others who point to Bible verses condemning homosexuality, Thomas said, "They have a very mistaken view of what the Bible says."
Mike Henry is pastor of the Free Methodist Church in Sunnyside and president of the Sunnyside Ministerial Association. He is among those with concerns about the Gay Straight Alliance club.
"I'm opposed to harassment or bullying, but I personally would be concerned about there being a hidden agenda about promoting the homosexual lifestyle," said Henry. "I'm not in agreement with the homosexual lifestyle. I'm concerned there's maybe a promotion or attempt to get more people to explore the homosexual lifestyle when it's not natural. I don't think it's anything more than the promotion of lustful behavior."
Ron Jetter is the pastor of Our Saviour's Lutheran Church and is vice president of the Sunnyside Ministerial Association. He shared a different view on the subject.
"My denomination teaches that all people are sinners in need of redeeming," Jetter said. "We exist for all people and don't try to change all people."
Jetter added, "Personally I would encourage my church and my children to be involved in any issue where there is justice and acceptance of others involved."
The ministerial association is working on a collaborative statement about the club that Jetter said will be presented to either the school board or Superintendent Dr. Rick Cole.
Speaking of the school board, their's is the lone voice so far unheard in the discussion on the gay and straight club.
Cole earlier this week said he didn't know whether or not the club had formed.
"Students have the right to form clubs and they're not approved or disapproved by the board but by the students," Cole explained.
In terms of forming clubs, Sunnyside sophomore Jonas Linde called for more consistency in policy.
"As a person of faith and a member of a fairly religious community it should be raised as a question of consistency within the school," Linde said. "I've heard of students trying to start religion related groups but facing little success. The argument about separating church and state is easily pushed aside considering all clubs are voluntary."
As to the Gay Straight Alliance, Linde noted, "I think it needs to be explained better what this club will do. I am not fully aware and neither is the community, which is a problem."
Given what he called the "sensitive" nature of the Gay Straight Alliance club, Cole said the district's ethics committee will look into the formation of the club and present a report to the Sunnyside School Board on Tuesday, Feb. 27, at 6:30 p.m. in the Denny Blaine board room.
"The school board could stop it," Cole said. "But the only option would be to disband all clubs, and they may take that action.