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Exeter Teen Disciplined for Expressing Catholic View on Gender

An Exeter High School freshman, who is also a practicing Catholic, was suspended from school sports after he affirmed the Catholic Church’s teachings on gender during a private conversation with another student.

Now the teen, identified in court records as M.P., and his family are suing the district for violating his rights. M.P. is represented by Cornerstone attorney Ian Huyett.

According to a Cornerstone statement, M.P. did nothing except express his constitutionally protected views. “M. P. did not harass or demean any student, but simply expressed his views on a contentious cultural issue.” 

Exeter Region Cooperative School Board Chair Helen Joyce did not respond to a request for comment. The lawsuit is filed in Rockingham Superior Court.

Cornerstone is a Christian advocacy non-profit based in Manchester and founded by conservative politician and activist Karen Testerman. According to Cornerstone, M.P. did not target or bully any transgender student with his speech. Instead, he was punished by Assistant Principal Marcy Dovholuk after he had a private conversation with another student.

M.P. had an exchange with a progressive student, who is described as not being transgendered, on a school bus. During the conversation, M.P. relayed his belief informed by Catholic teaching that there are two genders, male and female. This exchange was followed by a conversation between the two students over a text messaging app. That’s when the progressive student then got Dovholuk involved.

“The student then turned a copy of this text conversation over to Vice Principal Dovholuk, who confronted M. P. with printed copies of the text messages. M. P. was then subject to an athletic suspension,” according to the complaint.

Dovholuk suspended M.P. from athletics because of this conversation, which happened outside the school building, Cornerstone said.

Exeter adopted a Gender Nonconforming Students policy in 2016 that states in part, “[a] student has the right to be addressed by a name and pronoun that corresponds to the student’s gender identity,” it also includes a broader rule: “the intentional… refusal to respect a student’s gender identity… is a violation of this policy.” 

Exeter parents are already wary of the district’s handling of controversial issues and what many parents believe is an ideological bias among its leadership.

Exeter’s SAU 16 was put on notice by the state last month when the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office and the office of the Commissioner for New Hampshire’s Department of Education published a joint report on several concerns at the school, involving the violation of student rights. 

The report found, among other issues, that the school violated students’ rights during the prom when school staff put marks on the hands of students to indicate their vaccination status. 

And the district’s Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice, Andres Mejia, is part of the leadership team of the Black Lives Matter Seacoast organization.

Asked if, given his open ideological advocacy for BLM, he would work on behalf of religious and conservative students, as much as he works for minority and LGBTQ students, Mejia insisted it would not be a problem.

“My role is working for all students,” Mejia said. “And conservative children are part of that.”

The complaint alleges the district is violating M.P. ‘s rights under Article 22 of the New Hampshire Bill of Rights which protects his right to free speech. The suit also argues the school had no legal ability to punish M. P. for the content of his off-campus text messages.

As many other districts in New Hampshire have adopted similar policies to those in Exeter, M.P. ‘s case could have wide-ranging impacts throughout the Granite State.

“The key question before the court will be if Exeter’s Gender Nonconforming Students policy, nearly identical to the policy adopted by school districts across the state, can be used to suppress the free speech rights of students who hold dissenting views,” Cornerstone said in a statement.

The Winners and Losers of the New Hampshire Legislative Session

It felt like the last day of school at the New Hampshire State House on June 22. Lawmakers were signing each other’s session books (the political version of yearbooks), shaking hands, and taking pictures together. It had been another eventful legislative session that saw many highs and lows for Gov. Chris Sununu, the first Republican in the corner office in 12 years.

The Republicans didn’t always get along during this legislative session. Remember the defeat of right-to-work legislation and the House failing to pass their own version of a budget earlier this year? Despite the varied ideological depth of the New Hampshire Republican Party, they were able to show they can work together and give Sununu some final wins at the end of the first year of the 165th General Court, including full-day kindergarten and a budget getting passed.

Now, the lawmakers head home for the summer months and it’s time to decide the winners and losers of the session:

 

WINNERS:

With his wife Valerie at his side Republican candidate for governor Chris Sununu speaks to supporters early in the morning Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in Concord, N.H. Sununu said his race with Democratic challenger Colin VanOstern was too close to call. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Gov. Chris Sununu: As much as Democrats wanted Sununu to not do well his first term in office, several of his campaign promises and policy priorities made their way through the legislature and became law. One of his first wins in office came from the repeal of a license requirement for concealed carry firearms. It was something he said he would do on the campaign trail, and it got done within the first two months of his term.

That’s not to say that Sununu didn’t have some setbacks during the legislative session. The governor, who didn’t have prior legislative experience before taking office, saw the defeat of right-to-work under his watch and the House failed to pass a budget for the first time in recent memory. Some critics claim Sununu could have done more to get right-to-work passed, but the Republican infighting revealed a divided party that would prove difficult for GOP leadership to navigate.

With the budget, Democrats attempted to paint Sununu as not in control of his own party, but Sununu actually stood as the most to gain from the House’s failure. The House cut several of Sununu’s budget priorities in its version, but when the Senate drafted its own budget, it used Sununu’s proposal as a guide. What was ultimately passed at the end of June was a compromise of House, Senate, and Sununu’s priorities.

On the final day of the session, Sununu also saw the passage of full-day kindergarten and a key school choice bill. It might not have been a perfect process, but the governor saw several items from his policy wish-list reach his desk.

 

Marijuana: For several years, New Hampshire has been the only state in New England that still criminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. For many lawmakers, they saw a connection between the rampant opioid crisis and marijuana being used as a potential gateway drug. Historically, the Senate has voted down various bills relating to looser pot laws, but advocates fought long and hard to see marijuana decriminalization passed. After compromising with the House on an amount, the Senate finally found a bill that it could handle.

In June, the legislature decriminalized three-quarters of an ounce of pot and Sununu signed it into law. Marijuana advocates applauded lawmakers for taking the first step, although they are continuing to work toward full legalization.

 

Libertarians: The Libertarian Party of New Hampshire had a banner election year in 2016. It obtained 4 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial election to qualify for the ballot in 2018. It also had three sitting lawmakers switch their party affiliations from Democrat or Republican to Libertarian. The last time the Libertarian Party had an official caucus in the State House was in the 1990s when it had four members.

While Libertarians haven’t been the deciding votes on any controversial bills during the session, it is clear that some members of the major parties are unhappy within their own caucuses. The Libertarian Party needs to garner 4 percent of the vote again in 2018 to remain on the ballot, but with political partisanship at an all time high, voters could see Libertarians as a more moderate choice. That’s how many Granite Staters felt when they voted for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson over Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

 

 

Gov. Chris Sununu signs HB 262, declaring the common blackberry to be the berry of the biennium. (Image Credit: Gov. Chris Sununu’s office)

Blackberry and painted turtle: Every year, the state’s fourth graders learn how the state government works, and every year, legislation gets filed on their behalf. This year, lawmakers saw a bill from students at Simonds School in Warner naming the blackberry the official state berry of the biennium. It made its way through the House and Senate, and Sununu signed the bill in June.

Another group of students from Main Dunstable School in Nashua wanted the painted turtle to be the official state reptile for the biennium. That bill was also signed by Sununu.

It’s an annual tradition at the State House and while some lawmakers believe it’s a waste of time, some say it’s a good opportunity to get students involved and interested in the political process.

Of course, no one will forget the time in 2015 when students in Hampton Falls proposed making the red-tailed hawk the state raptor and a lawmaker suggested the creature would be a better mascot for Planned Parenthood. That became a national news story.

Luckily, no incidents like that happened this year. And Sununu enjoyed snacking on some blackberries with the fourth-grade students when he signed the bill into law.

 

LOSERS:

Democrats: The New Hampshire Democratic Party struggled to find its footing this year. For the first time since 2010, Democrats were fully the minority party in the State House — Republicans had majorities in the House, Senate, Executive Council, and the corner office. The party couldn’t decide if it wanted to work with Republicans or be the party of resistance to their agenda.

Their lack of a mission or agenda was evident in the legislature. While Democrats banded together to help defeat right-to-work and the House’s budget, there were times when some members disagreed with party leadership and voted their conscience. When it became clear that it was very likely that a budget wouldn’t be passed in the House, some Democrats advocated for at least passing something on to the Senate.

While Democrats have long pushed full-day kindergarten, they didn’t like that the final bill tied its funding to the lottery game Keno. Most Democrats voted against it, and that could be a major policy issue when they face reelection next year.

But the question still remains: will Democrats work with Republicans in the next legislative session in January or will they resist? National politics will definitely influence their decisions, and it will also be an election year. More partisanship is likely.

 

Right-to-work: The bill called for prohibiting unions from charging fees to nonmembers for the costs of representation, but even in a GOP-controlled legislature, Republicans couldn’t get the votes. A lot of different factors went into its defeat in the House, including disagreements between Sununu and House Speaker Shawn Jasper, as well as some Republicans who are part of unions or know people in unions. This was a major bill that some lobbyists and advocacy groups pushed for, including the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity-New Hampshire. Simply, the votes were not there and lawmakers voted to not bring up the issue again until at least 2019, but expect to see another bill if the GOP retains its majority in the legislature.

 

Transgender advocates: A controversial gender identity nondiscrimination bill was tabled in the House, much to the dismay of transgender advocates. The bill would have prohibited discrimination based on gender identity, extending gender identity the same protections under state law that exist for age, sex, sexual orientation, race, or creed. The protections would have applied to discrimination in housing, employment practices, and public accommodations.

House Speaker Shawn Jasper and other members of the GOP leadership sought to kill the bill, or at least get it off the agenda for the session. Their issue with the legislation mirrors the Republican opinion at a national level — the bill would have allowed transgender people to use the restrooms of their choice.

Advocates are hoping the bill could be resurrected next year.

 

Opioid crisis: The drug epidemic still has its grips on the Granite State, which is ranked as the second hardest hit state by per capita overdose deaths in the nation. Lawmakers passed some bills to help curb the crisis, but as with any legislative process, it can take a while for treatment and recovery centers to receive the necessary funds to make a difference.

The state is also now dealing with the rise of carfentanil, a synthetic opioid that is is so potent that it’s not intended for human consumption. It’s 100 times more potent than fentanyl and is commonly used to tranquilize elephants. There’s still a backlog at the state’s crime lab to investigate due to the increase in the number of drug overdose deaths.

While lawmakers seek political solutions for ending the crisis, advocacy groups say more creative solutions are needed, but it appears that the end of the epidemic is still not in sight.

 

UNDECIDED:

House Speaker Shawn Jasper (Photo Credit: Speaker Shawn Jasper Facebook page)

House Speaker Shawn Jasper and House Freedom Caucus: The conservative caucus threatened to kill the state budget unless their priorities were included. None of its members were on the conference committee to have a say in final negotiations, but House Speaker Shawn Jasper reached out to members to market the budget as a conservative one. Ultimately, some House Freedom Caucus representatives voted for the budget due to its inclusion of anti-abortion language and business tax cuts. But, Jasper’s control over the speakership is still in question. With defeats of right-to-work and a House budget, some representatives are questioning his ability to lead. If the GOP retains control in the House, expect several people to challenge him in 2018 to be speaker.

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Was the Possible Delay in NH’s Gender Identity Bill Expected?

A bill banning discrimination against gender identity appears to be in trouble in the New Hampshire House. Before the House votes, House Speaker Shawn Jasper is recommending that representatives table the bill.

“The bill is just not ready to move forward,” he told the Concord Monitor. “My concern is with those who are transitioning … going into restrooms, showers, locker rooms, anyplace where it may make someone uncomfortable for a whole myriad of reasons.”

House Bill 478 would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing, and public accommodations. At least 18 other states, including other New England states like Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, have gender identity anti-discrimination laws on the books, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

New Hampshire already has a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, but not gender identity. A previous version of this bill was defeated in 2009, but former Gov. Maggie Hassan signed an executive order banning gender identity discrimination in state government.

The current bill passed the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee on a 15-2 vote, and includes sponsors from high-ranking Democrats and Republicans, including House Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff and Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley.

Over the weekend, lawmakers’ email accounts were flooded with comments about the legislation. More than 800 emails since Friday appeared in representatives’ inboxes through the House-wide listserv, according to reports. The hard part is sifting through it all to determine who is writing and where its coming from.

Some of the emails were templates from people who didn’t give an address or full name, making it difficult to determine if they were state residents or not, and lawmakers said they were receiving more emails in opposition than in support of the bill, resulting in some representatives changing their support.

“The public is not ready,” wrote Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, in an email to all House members on Sunday. Edwards backed the bill in committee, but changed his mind after the influx in messages.

“The number of people who have written stating that this bill essentially offers their children up to sexual predators is outrunning by 5 to 1 the number of emails stating that it’s time to end the daily beatings of transgendered people,” he added. “The passionate are yelling past each other with worst case scenarios. I don’t think this is an environment in which the legislature should pick a side.”

Advocates of the bill turned out in overwhelming support for the bill when the committee heard public testimony on it in February, making it seem like it had the majority of public backing and would sail through the rest of the Republican-led Legislature. They say the protections are needed for transgender people, who testified they have been fired, harassed, or discriminated against because of their gender identity.

“I have experienced way too many instances of employment discrimination,” said Shana Aisenberg, a transgendered woman from Freedom who is a musician and music teacher, at the hearing. “Musicians with whom I play stopped calling me. Students cancelled lessons. A music camp where I taught for 10 years fired me because I changed my gender.”

However, opponents of the bill said it could lead to men entering women’s bathrooms to take advantage of them. The bill is not specifically about bathrooms, but it’s an example that’s been widely used throughout the country. Conservatives say it’s about protecting the rights of privacy and religious liberty for New Hampshire residents.

On the religious liberty front, Cornerstone Action is claiming that the bill would negatively impact churches and religious organizations. A lawsuit could potentially arise out of churches, faith-based charities, schools, and ministries who are protected by the state religious exemption, but it’s only applied to “persons of the same religioun or denomination.”

Law experts have argued that these faith-based organizations would have to check everyone at the door to determine if they are of the same religion or denomination in order to maintain separate gender bathrooms. Even if someone argues that they belong to the same religion, they could sue for discrimination against their rights, and the legal fees could be crippling for the faith-based groups. They point to an incident that happened in Massachusetts last year as an example.

Cornerstone Chairman Charlie McKinney wrote a letter to constituents asking them to sign on to a petition that would go to Jasper. The petition states the bill puts “the feelings of gender-confused individuals” over citizen privacy and safety.

“For centuries, we have had social mores, now dubbed ‘discriminatory,’ that are in truth loving, since they informally embraced a moral code that pointed to acceptance of how God created us,” he wrote in the letter. “Although most of the national press on this issue has focused on bathrooms, that’s not what is really at stake for us as Christians. At issue here, as with most other social issues, is the freedom to declare the Truth and conform our lives to the will and design of our Father and Creator.”

It’s possible that a majority of Jasper’s emails are coming from people who signed the petition, which includes a pre-written text. But Freedom New Hampshire, a group that supports the bill, also has a similar message on its website for people to sign, click, and send to their representatives.

“This legislation is about leveling the playing field. Everyone deserves to work hard, put a roof over their head and participate in public life without constant fear of discrimination,” the note states. “But because there are no explicit protections for transgender people under state law in housing, employment, or public accommodations, they must live in fear every day of being wrongly fired, evicted, or denied service—just because of who they are.”

Yet, the possible defeat, or delay, of this bill could have been expected, according to a recent survey on the bill. The Citizens Count, NH’s Live Free or Die Alliance — a nonpartisan organization looking to give citizen’s a voice in their local government — conducted a Facebook survey of New Hampshire residents on their support for the bill in January.

Approximately 56 percent of respondents said they opposed the bill and 44 percent said they supported it. Of course, the methodology is not an exact science, but the results and testimony provide insight from people who might not be able to attend a public hearing at the State House in the middle of a work day.

The national debate on transgender rights comes at a difficult time in the community’s fight. It started last year when North Carolina passed a bill requiring people to use public restrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates. Texas is poised to take up a similar bill during the current legislative session.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sent a case involving a Virginia transgender high school student, who is seeking to use school bathrooms that match his gender identity, back to a lower court, meaning that it will go back to a court of appeals and makes it highly unlikely the Supreme Court will hear it this term.

This decision comes on the heels of a change in policy by President Donald Trump’s administration, which revoked last month Obama-era guidelines on protections for transgender students in public schools.
The House is expected to vote on the bill during their Wednesday executive session.

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