An anti-LGBTQ Christian church will no longer rent space from a public school district in Texas, a move that some local activists are calling a victory spurred by their activism.
For more than a year now, there have been weekly protests outside Celebration Church — that is, outside the Austin Independent School District’s Mueller Performing Arts Center, where the church met — all because activists didn’t believe the school district should play host to an openly anti-LGBTQ church.
Just about any lawyer would tell you the church rented the properly fairly. They filled out the paperwork. They paid the costs. They didn’t advertise when they weren’t supposed to. They didn’t suggest the district was endorsing their beliefs. Therefore, they had every right to pay for the space. The same thing would apply to just about all outside groups — and plenty of newer churches make use of public schools on weekends, paying for space that wasn’t being used. It’s a win-win for both sides. It’s also not exactly a compromise. Had the district said no to the church, they could have been sued. And they would have lost.
A more strategic argument would’ve been to ask the school district not to rent space to any outside group. Or to change the rental agreement so that only school-related activities are permitted in buildings outside of regular hours. But even the Freedom From Religion Foundation would tell you it’s illegal to rent space out to, say, a local knitting club while simultaneously rejecting a church on account of its beliefs.
Last year, TX Attorney General Ken Paxton even wrote a letter to the Austin ISD saying as much. While he says plenty of ridiculous things, he was right about the law on this issue.
But last Sunday, Pastor Jim Kuykendall let one of the protest leaders, Candace Aylor, know that Celebration would be ending its month-to-month lease with the school district because they were going to move to their own building. The church is growing, he said, and they had no need to rent out space anymore.
In some ways, it’s disappointing to see a bigoted church growing. But that move may have been hastened by the constant protests. (What good is it to have smiling greeters at the church doors when visitors would have to walk through a group of people dressed as handmaids first?) I should add that one of the protesters doesn’t believe the church is growing at all because “we counted their attendance every week.”
Aylor told the Austin Chronicle that she viewed the campaign as “successful because it was consistent, persistent, and collaborative.” Aylor also said in a press release that the protesters achieved their goal of “getting bigots out of public spaces.”
If you buy the church’s argument that they just grew larger, and agree that they played by the rules in renting space, then the victory chants from protesters may seem hollow. Do they really deserve credit for something that seemed likely to happen anyway? However, by showing up to school board meetings and voicing their dissent, they may have something tangible to show for it: AISD promised to use some of that rental money to help students participate in the local Pride event. (Aylor said there’s no evidence the money was used for that purpose.)
I’m not bothered by the district allowing a church to use its space. Austin ISD followed the law. Administrators had no other choice. Had they listened to the protesters, it’s the students who would have ultimately suffered due to the money wasted defending a lost cause.
But that’s not to say the protesters shouldn’t get some credit. I’d like to think they helped some visitors realize they were stepping into a minefield of hate by joining this church. The activists may not understand the law, but they know that what the church teaches is despicable. And they made sure everyone knew it.
***Update***: One of the protest leaders, Candace Aylor, told me her group did NOT ask for the district to do anything illegal. They would have been fine with the Austin ISD not renting out space to outside groups altogether, or issuing a statement saying they disagreed with the church’s bigotry but that they were forced to rent the space out. They also wanted the board to ask LGBTQ students where the rental money should go instead of making an announcement about it on their own.
(Thanks to Brian for the link)