Hempfield school board

The Hempfield school board meets July 29, 2021. 

The Hempfield school board on Thursday doubled down on its decision two weeks ago to hire a conservative law firm to help develop a policy around athletic participation among transgender students, a move that angered LGBT advocates in the community.

During an Education and Programs Committee meeting Thursday evening at the Hempfield High School Performing Arts Center, the school board rescinded its July 13 motion selecting the Independence Law Center, a Harrisburg-based law firm with a reputation for opposing LGBT rights in favor of religious liberty, to help the administration craft a new athletics policy on a pro-bono basis.

Then, instead of switching to a more neutral law firm, as critics have suggested, the school board approved a motion stating it will retain the Independence Law Center's services but add those of the district’s solicitor, Fox Rothschild, in developing the policy. The motion passed 7-1, with board member Jim Maurer dissenting and Chris Smiley absent.

Fox Rothschild will collect payment according to its existing retainer. A school district spokesperson could not immediately provide the rate the law firm charges, because the business office had closed earlier that day.

"I'm still not thrilled about working with the ILC, but I do believe it's vital that the board gathers as much information as possible," school board President Mike Donato, who voted against the original July 13 motion, said prior to Thursday's vote. "And neither Fox Rothschild nor the ILC will be developing a policy or policies … but will be working together with the administration to develop that."

Maurer, who also voted against the original motion, said he was "vehemently" against the ILC hire, because he saw it as a clear violation of the separation of church and state.

The ILC is affiliated with the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a nonprofit lobbying organization working to preserve religious liberty, according to its website.

To level the playing field, board member Linda Johnston, who also voted against the July 13 motion, suggested the board hire the ACLU. She hinted at the possibility of bringing it up in an official motion at the next full school board meeting on Tuesday.

If Thursday’s motion failed, the July 13 decision would have remained in place, meaning the ILC would have still been hired to work with the administration.

Board Vice President Grant Keener and board members Charles Merris and Dylan Bard were the most vocal supporters of the decision to hire ILC. Bard likened any parting with the ILC to discrimination, saying it wouldn't be fair to dismiss those who share the center's views. That comment drew condemnation from the crowd. On several occasions, Bard stopped and repudiated residents who commented while he spoke. One resident called him a liar, to which he responded, "I'm not lying."

Merris and Keener defended the board's decision, saying just because the ILC advertises itself as a religious organization, it doesn't mean that will reflect in the policy the board will eventually adopt.

More than two dozen residents attended the meeting — a rare feat for a committee meeting. Seven addressed the board during the public comment period. Every speaker opposed the ILC and supported transgender rights.

Among the speakers was cisgender student-athlete and rising Hempfield High School senior Bella Naples. She said a religious organization should not dictate who plays on which teams.

The debate over transgender student-athletes began in the spring, when a high school sophomore assigned male at birth who identifies as female competed for the girls track team.

"I would be honored to have a trans (athlete) play with us," Naples said.

The district administration is expected to provide an update on the athletics policy no later than Sept. 14.

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