By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
MUSKEGON – This “Last Call” didn’t come at 2 a.m. in a neighborhood bar. Instead, it was presented at two area schools – and now the ACLU is investigating and area LGBT activists are wondering what actions to take when the ultra conservative Christian-themed play is presented later this month at the Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts.
“The Last Call” is presented by volunteers at the local Shiloh Tabernacle Church. According to the Rev. Verne Wright, there are about nine different scenes in the play, and scenes are presented depending on where the play is being performed. However, according to accounts in the June 2 Muskegon Chronicle, the play is unmistakably conservative Christian. In one scene, for example, a man who molests both of his nieces as children finds Jesus and enters Heaven at his death. One of the nieces, a lesbian, catches AIDS and is condemned to Hell. Another scene portrays a woman who had an abortion and who then repented being reunited in Heaven with the fetus.
According to the Chronicle report, the play was presented to students at Muskegon Heights High School last December and at Muskegon’s Steele Middle School in April.
According to Joseph Schulze, superintendent of the Muskegon Public Schools, “We made a mistake,” in allowing the play to be presented. “I’ve met with the individual principal and contacted the school board attorney firm we work with and asked them to produce updated guidelines and policies for our school administrators, to be disseminated by the beginning of next year. That will not happen again.”
Muskegon Heights High School Principal Danny Smith, however, didn’t see a problem with having the play performed during an assembly at his school, and said that the anti-gay scene was not performed at his school.
“The one that my school saw did not have anything offensive in it because I would not have went for that,” he said when asked what he would say to any lesbians or gay persons who might have been offended by the play.
However, Smith is unapologetic about his belief in mixing religion and scholarship. On May 28, the Chronicle quoted Smith as saying, “As a Christian, I push the envelope right up to the line. I’m one of those who disagreed with prayer being removed from the school. I want to push it as close to the line as I can. But I’m not going to break the law.”
Dana Bryant, superintendent of Muskegon Heights public schools, did not return a call from BTL seeking a comment.
BTL was unable to confirm whether the anti-gay scenes was performed at either of the two schools.
Anti-gay scenes or not, the ACLU of Michigan is investigating whether the presentations of the play violated students’ rights to a separation of church and state. Legal Director Michael Steinberg has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to learn how the decision was made to show the plays, and is seeking information from anyone who may have seen either performance.
“We’re obviously disturbed by the media reports,” Steinberg told BTL.
“A program like this might be appropriate for church, or if parents want to teach their children and preach to their children at home it’s certainly appropriate and they obviously have a right to do so,” Steinberg told the Chronicle June 2. “But one group’s religion can’t be forced down the throats of children in school.”
During an interview with BTL, Wright defended the play and its presentation in the schools.
In the scene where the child molester is depicted as entering Heaven while his lesbian victim is sent to Hell, Wright said, “The issue wasn’t the child molester going to heaven and the person with the alternative lifestyle going to Hell. The issue was that she didn’t repent and that she killed her uncle. She should have repented from the killing and she should have gotten some help because her uncle molested her and it caused her to lead an alternative lifestyle and she should have repented from that.” During the interview Wright claimed that the “power of a Christian drama” turned the high school around and admitted his belief that same-sex attraction is a “sin – if it’s not repented.”
Wright told BTL he didn’t know whether the anti-gay scene was part of the performance at the high school.
According to the June 2 Chronicle report, “Controversy over the school performances prompted Shiloh Tabernacle Church to plan a free presentation of ‘The Last Call’ at the Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts at 7 p.m. June 30.”
The planned presentation has worried Muskegon-area LGBT activist Rich Nelson. Nelson, who is currently helping to produce the area’s first Pride festival, said that he plans to attend the play himself, and may write a letter to the editor of the Chronicle if what he sees offends him. There are no plans as yet to protest the play, said Nelson, who characterized the local LGBT community as, “more of a social network than a political one.”
“It’s a very conservative, religious area here,” said Nelson, with “a lot of elements of religious zealotry and they have a very strong voice. I think it’s a relatively small percentage of people, but it’s a strong voice.”
Speak OUT: The ACLU of Michigan is seeking individuals who saw “The Last Call” at either Muskegon Heights High School last December or at Muskegon’s Steele Middle School in April to help in its ongoing investigation of the incidents. Those seeking to help should call Rachel Simmons at 313-578-6814.