Sunnie Kahle is an 8-year-old girl. But in the eyes of the staff at Timberlake Christian Schools, she dressed and acted more like a boy. After consulting by phone with Sunnie’s grandparents (her grandmom is her guardian), administrators at the school felt they had to take action, and sent the grandmother the following letter.
I am writing regarding your plans for Sunnie for school this fall. Sunnie is a very bright girl, and we care very deeply about her well-being. It seems that Sunnie has had a difficult year at times with some of the struggles that you and I have talked about on the phone. There also have been several occasions when the other students, particularly those who do not know Sunnie personally, have been confused about whether she is a boy or girl, and at times, these occasions have been troubling to Sunnie. I also understand that Sunnie is being counseled professionally regarding her identify and image in order to steer her in a particular direction to handle these identity issues.
You’re probably aware that Timberlake Christian Schools is a religious, Bible-believing Institution providing education in a distinctly Christian environment, and we believe that our biblical role is to work in conjunction with the home to mold students to be Christlike. On those occasions in which the atmosphere or conduct within a particular home is counter to or in opposition to the biblical lifestyle that the school teaches, the school reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission of an applicant or to discontinue enrollment of a student. This includes, but is not necessarily limited to, living in, condoning or supporting sexual immorality; practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity; promoting such practices; or otherwise having the inability to support the moral principles of the school. We base this standard on Bible principles as found in Leviticus 20:13a; Romans 1:21-27; Matthew 19:4-6; and I Corinthians 6:9-20.
However, we believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that ICS is not the best place for her future education. It seems that the school’s goals and biblical foundations are going to be in contradiction with the direction that Sunnie is heading at this point.
For this reason, we must ask that you not re-enroll Sunnie here at TCS unless you are open to following the biblical standards set forth above. This request does not in any way stem from Sunnie’s academic performance or general cooperation with school rules. We would welcome an opportunity to talk with you further regarding this issue if you would like. We love Sunnie and do want the best for her. We would miss her presence here, but we do not want her future years be filled confusion and conflicting input from those who are guiding her.
If you have any questions, or would like to talk further about these issues, please feel free to contact me at…
Mrs. Becky Bowman
Sunnie’s grandparents, Carl and Doris Thompson, were furious, and immediately decided to take Sunnie out of Timberlake and put her in public school. But they say Sunnie is inconsolable at having to leave her school, and cries every morning because she misses her classmates.
The story has hit the media, and is now spread all across the internet. I first came across it in the Washington Post.
Reading this story, I had several reactions.
First, a caveat: The school’s point of view is almost totally unrepresented in the media. Timberlake, of course, is restricted by privacy considerations in what they can publicly say about Sunnie’s situation. Sunnie’s grandparents are not, and it’s their outrage that is reflected in the coverage. When the school is quoted, it’s usually in excerpts obviously selected to portray this Christian institution in the worse light possible.
But based on what has been revealed, here are my reactions.
The school could have handled this much better
The letter to Doris Thompson, which the school obviously never intended to be made public, opens the door to them being portrayed as insensitive and intolerant. Though they say they love Sunnie, it seems that unless she conforms to their vision of what a little girl should be, they are quite willing to just cast her aside. It seems to me the school missed a perfect opportunity to teach all the students some biblical lessons about how to treat people who seem “different.”
It’s clear that Sunnie was not disruptive in any way. She was just being herself. On the surface, at least, the charge of being legalistic, insensitive, unloving, intolerant, and even cruel is one Timberlake Christian Schools should not dismiss out of hand. This ought to be the occasion for them to engage in some serious self reflection.
Why did the grandparents publicize this issue?
My second reaction was to the grandparents taking this incident to the media. I understand that they considered the action of the school to be outrageous and hurtful, and naturally wanted to throw as much shame and opprobrium on them as possible.
But is having this story, and Sunnie’s photo, plastered all over the internet for all time really in the best interests of the child? When she’s 15 and perhaps interested in dating, will she really want her high school friends to be googleing this? When’s she’s 22 and looking for a job, will it be OK with her that this is what comes up in potential employers’ background checks?
Wouldn’t it have been much better for Sunnie to simply put her in another school and move on?
Now the school itself is being made a victim of intolerance
Ironically, Timberlake Christian Schools is being pilloried in the media for exactly the same transgression they saw in Sunnie – refusal to conform to the role expectations assigned to them by the culture of which they are a part.
The media portrayal of this incident is, in my opinion, deliberately calculated to subtly communicate the absurdity of evangelical Christians trying to apply biblical standards in their lives and activities.
Look, for example, at some of the headlines that accompanied this story:
- Virginia girl’s style not feminine enough for Lynchburg Christian school
- Christian School Tells 8-Year-Old Tomboy To Dress More Like A Girl
- Virginia girl, 8, banned from Christian school for ‘acting like a boy’
Every headline I saw highlighted that this was a “Christian school,” and strongly hinted at the ridiculousness of it imposing its narrow-minded and fanatical religious rules on a poor, defenseless 8-year-old.
And readers get the message. A Facebook page for Timberlake Christian Schools that was generated automatically and not put up by the school, now has a number of very negative comments regarding the school and Christians in general.
For one man who claims to have been an evangelical pastor for 25 years before leaving the faith and becoming a secular humanist, this was a great opportunity to bash not only the school but the Bible. “This story,” he declares, “reveals very clearly why the Bible should not be used to judge what is considered acceptable gender roles. It is an antiquated book that has NO relevance today in matters of gender and sex.”
The school, though wrong, was right!
As I said above, from what I know it seems the school didn’t choose the best way of handling this situation.
On the other hand, I stand firmly behind their right and responsibility to uphold biblical standards, as they see them, in dealing with their students. It is, after all, a private Christian school. Nobody ought to be surprised or offended that they want to “impose” their religious standards on their students. That’s their job!
And that, presumably, is the reason parents choose to pay a lot of money to send their children to a Christian school in the first place.