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Pittsburgh schools miss teaching moment with marathon

November 14, 2018

Kids don’t just learn about vowels and the periodic table of elements and westward expansion in school.

The incubator of a public school teaches you other lessons. Cooperation. The value of waiting your turn. The balance of friendship versus doing the right thing.

We want our schools to model the kind of behavior we want kids to emulate.

That’s why it’s kind of disappointing to see Pittsburgh Public Schools being intolerant in the name of tolerance.

On Wednesday, the board of directors unanimously approved a resolution opposing the new corporate sponsor of the Pittsburgh Kids Marathon and Kids of Steel program: Chick-fil-A.

And that’s fine. Any organization gets to decide what it supports and what it doesn’t, within the bounds of the law.

Chick-fil-A should understand that. After all, the reason the school board is taking this position is because of the fast-food company’s own stances.

“The family-owned, privately held restaurant company has expressed views contrary to and in conflict with the district’s nondiscrimination policies,” the school board said in its resolution.

The company has famously taken a stance against same-sex marriage and has supported anti-LGBT organizations, something that has, over the years, resulted in plenty of opposition, both formal and informal, organized and individual, including an online petition initiated earlier this month protesting Chick-fil-A as the marathon’s sponsor.

But Pittsburgh Public Schools didn’t stop there.

Rather than just opposing the move as an organization, it is trickling its grasp down. The resolution also restricts “official participation” by any district employee as well as promotion of both the marathon and the Kids of Steel programs. Kids of Steel is a physical activity and nutrition program that includes runs, walks and races.

As a mom, I want my son to learn to stand up for things he believes. I want him to appreciate inclusion and diversity. I want him to know that people of all backgrounds, interests and beliefs can have something valuable to offer.

But I don’t know that quashing free speech as retaliation for someone else’s exercise of free speech is the best way to pursue that.

By saying that employees can’t officially participate (although the school board also has said that doesn’t mean they can’t participate at all, which will no doubt prove confusing), the Pittsburgh Public Schools -- a governmental body -- is hitting at several First Amendment issues.

In addition to freedom of speech, there’s freedom of association and freedom of religion.

Chick-fil-A’s owners, the Cathy family, have been open about their position being religious in basis. So does the school board’s move say they are fine with making Bill of Rights decisions for thousands of employees and thousands more students?

I applaud the board’s decision to take a stand. As a longtime supporter of LGBT rights who counts people who identify as gay, lesbian and bisexual among some of my dearest friends and family, it warms my heart when others decide to lock arms in support of them.

But I live and die by the First Amendment, and I think the school board missed a teaching moment.

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