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Testing the Conscience of Public Servants

Thursday night’s Westminster school board meeting has all the makings of a donnybrook. The teachers union, known in some circles as the godless heathens, plans to demonstrate outside the board meeting at Stacey Middle School. Meanwhile, word circulates that “church people” from outside the district might show up to bolster the other side. You might want to keep the children away from this one.

At issue is the recent vote of a three-member board majority that refuses to approve new wording in the district’s anti-discrimination policy to reflect state law protecting transsexuals and others who don’t conform to traditional gender roles. The vote jeopardizes millions of dollars in public funds and has angered school administrators and some parents.

In just saying no, the three members invoked their Christian beliefs. Opponents say this intransigence -- no other school board in the state took the same tack -- imperils the district.

For guidance, I solicited the thoughts of former Presbyterian minister Steven Mather of Anaheim, a pastor for 25 years before leaving the ministry in 1999, Mather, 54, is disconnected from the flap but agreed to my request to find a “road map” to peace in Westminster.

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In short, I ask him, can the majority vote for the wording change without betraying its beliefs?

Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t discuss serving on a school board. The Book of Acts, Mather says, describes Paul being called before a governing authority and told to recant. “He says, ‘I must obey God rather than men,’ ” Mather says, but notes that the Westminster situation is different in that the board members are the governing authority.

Mather suggests the three members think in terms of weighing each side of an equation -- being true to their consciences and fulfilling their public responsibility. Normally, the two wouldn’t conflict, but, when they do, Mather says, an officeholder has to decide whether to compromise. For the Westminster trio, he recommends that they determine if their umbrage “is an issue of faith or personal taste or a combination.” From there, they can decide if their consciences have been “so aggrieved” that they must make a stand.

If they determine that their consciences have been sufficiently aggrieved, he says, they could still vote for the wording change but issue a statement of disagreement with the state policy. Or, issue a statement and abstain from voting. Or, they could begin a movement to overturn the state law -- in essence, “witnessing” to their faith.

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If they did that, Mather suggests, they’d be remaining true to their consciences but also acknowledging the possible negative consequences (to the district) of voting against the change. What might be at play in Westminster, he surmised, is that the three members “don’t see the difference between public responsibility and personal conscience.”

In a pluralistic society like ours, Mather says, there’s always the potential challenge in deciding how to act on one’s religious values when a situation tests those values. One honorable recourse for the Westminster members, he says, would be for them to say that the language violates their sense of morality but that, in deference to “this other good -- harmony in the district” -- they would “place their own conscience in a secondary role.”

If he were their pastor, Mather says, “I would say, ‘If it’s such an affront to you to sit there and vote yes or abstain, then you need to be clear as to why you feel this is a travesty.’ ”

If they still stood firm? “That is the onus or liberating thing of Protestant theology,” he says. “The individual is placed in the role of final arbiter of his or her own conscience. We are the lords of our own conscience.”

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Dana Parsons can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at dana.parsons@latimes.com or at The Times’ Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.


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