State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson has told a Christian legal organization that the Governor’s School of North Carolina, which has been criticized for allowing a seminar last year that allegedly promoted homosexuality, “is not a ‘public school'” as defined in state law.

Atkinson’s claim came in a response to a letter (.pdf format) from the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defense Fund, and its senior legal counsel J. Michael Johnson, who said a seminar based on a book called “The New Gay Teenager” conducted at the Governor’s School West in Winston-Salem last summer was illegal. Johnson cited North Carolina statutes that stipulate that the State Board of Education “has the sole authority to develop and approve courses and programs that concern human sexuality education.” Another state law requires an “emphasis on the importance of parental involvement” and “abstinence from sex until marriage” in any such curriculum.

But in her response, Atkinson told Johnson that the statutes he cited address only the state’s Basic Education Program, as implemented by North Carolina’s kindergarten through 12th grade public schools.

“Your concerns that the optional seminar violated North Carolina law…are misplaced,” Atkinson wrote to Johnson. “The [Governor’s School West] is a six-week summer residential program for intellectually gifted high school students.

“The [Governor’s School West] is not a ‘public school’ as that term is used in [the statute] and is not required to adhere to the Basic Education Program….”

Johnson, who had warned Atkinson and State Board of Education chairman Howard Lee, “it is imperative that this situation be corrected immediately to avoid unnecessary litigation,” disputed Atkinson’s interpretation of the statute. He said the fact that the Governor’s School is taxpayer-funded and is under the control of the Department of Public Instruction makes it “public.” Also, Atkinson’s correspondence was printed on letterhead with the moniker, “Public Schools of North Carolina.”

“I think under that definition, the Governor’s School applies,” Johnson told Carolina Journal. “I think it’s an excuse, and I think it’s a lame one.”

According to the law, the “Basic Education Program shall describe the education program to be offered to every child in the public schools.” The statute cites several subject areas for instruction under the program, including “physical education and personal health and safety.”

In his original letter to Atkinson and Lee, Johnson said state law requires “that parents be given the opportunity to review sex education programs, materials and objectives before any student may participate….” He also said the law requires public hearings before sex education programs are adopted.

The seminar was heavily criticized by James and Beverly Burrows, whose son attended Governor’s School last year and said he returned home from the school “confused” about homosexuality because of the seminar. The Burrowses said they were not warned beforehand about the “Gay Teenager” seminar, and contacted ADF about its legality.

Johnson had warned that DPI should prohibit “any similar seminars or unapproved sexuality education curricula…in the future,” and requested “written assurance that religious viewpoints will no longer be maligned…at all future Governor’s programs.”

Atkinson’s response provided no promises, other than “to examine course offerings and instructional practices at the [Governor’s School West] to be sure that they are consistent with the [school’s] mission to enrich the lives of its students.”

“Based upon our review of the events,” Atkinson wrote, “we are satisfied that ‘The New Gay Teenager’ optional seminar did not violate anyone’s legal rights.”

Johnson is preparing a response to Atkinson’s letter, and said legal action is possible.

“I’m going to ask again for some type of assurance for the future,” he said. “I want to see what they’re going to do for this year.

“I think if they do that again, they’re asking for trouble.”

Paul Chesser ([email protected]) is associate editor of Carolina Journal.