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Teenager stands tall in shadow of intolerance

This is the season for handing out awards to graduating seniors and we'd like to give one, for courage, to 18-year-old Mary Margaret Nussbaum, editor of the award-winning The Lever, the student newspaper at Palmer High School, in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Nussbaum wrote dispassionately about gay and lesbian teenagers who attend the high school, shedding light on the lives and thoughts of homosexual teens searching for a niche in the youth culture.

If the story enlightened readers about an area of life that often remains concealed to the wider world, it also taught Nussbaum some difficult lessons about being a truth-teller. Lots of people can be unsettled by the truth, and they often blame the messenger.

So it was in Colorado Springs, where a strongly homophobic element of the religious right is deeply entrenched.

Nearly three years ago, religious right leaders from around the country gathered in Colorado Springs for a meeting they thought was free of press. They wanted it that way, they told each other during the meeting, so they could talk freely about planning an anti-homosexual campaign.

But tapes made during the session were obtained by this newspaper through the Institute for First Amendment Studies (see NCR, Sept. 2, 1994). They showed that so-called religious leaders felt free to use terms like "queers" in reference to gays and lesbians and to term homosexuals "corrosive" to society and to characterize the "gay agenda" as "truly evil."

When Nussbaum's article was published, the right-wing religionists reacted predictably. They tried to stir public sentiment through a postcard campaign and through the press and electronic media that reported the controversy at length.

In that reaction is an increasingly important lesson for anyone who cherishes their faith and their claim to the designation Christian.

The outcry against Nussbaum, which included a local preacher's statement presuming that anyone who wrote such an article was without religious or moral foundation, illustrates the degree to which the religious right has claimed the label Christian for itself and its narrow agenda.

A political movement inspired more by dislike and condemnation than by love and compassion has managed to refashion the idea of what is Christian and sell that idea to the wider culture. There are no truth in advertising laws that cover such fraud and arrogance.

But that's where examples like Mary Margaret Nussbaum and her family and her school teachers and principal come into play. The young journalist is, indeed, the product of a very Christian, Catholic and deeply religious environment. She apparently has inherited a healthy and challenging faith from her parents. Together, she and the adults in her life have shown that a community does not have to remain silent or be cowed by advocates of intolerance and bigotry.

National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 1997