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Just What Does “A Christian Environment” Mean?

Novelist Annie Proulx short story, “Brokeback Mountain,” is about to hit the big screen as a major motion picture. Yet, even before the movie hits the screen, the story is hitting controversy.

Cody McNair, a film producer who is the son of Texas oilman Robert McNair (owner of the Houston Texans football team), has withdrawn a $3-million pledge to St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin. St. Andrew’s is an preparatory school that describes its mission as “to provide an enriched academic program within a Christian environment emphasizing the fulfillment of each student’s potential.”

St. Andrew’s is a member of the National Association of Episcopal Schools and it insists that it is committed to maintaining its Episcopal identity. Nevertheless, the current controversy indicates that the school must have a rather unconventional concept of “a Christian environment.”

The crisis erupted when the McNair family protested the fact that the school observed the Day of Silence ( a program intended to encourage acceptance of homosexuality) but would not observe the National Day of Prayer. When the McNairs, along with fellow St. Andrew’s parents Ben and Julie Crenshaw (Ben is a well-known professional golfer), met with school officials to discuss the situation, controversy eventually settled on “Brokeback Mountain.”

Proulx’s short story traces a decades-long relationship between two male ranch hands in Wyoming. The two men develop a homosexual relationship, and Proulx is not shy about describing the relationship — and the sex — in graphic terms.

According to the Austin American-Statesman, Cody McNair found the book inappropriate for high school students and for a school that claimed a Christian identity. “Why would SAS (St. Andrew’s School) promote classroom discussion on pornographic material concerning deviant behavior?” McNair said in an Aug. 17 letter to St. Andrew’s trustee Paul Bury. “An apparent agenda at the Upper School is developing that is detrimental to SAS’s future.”

The school dismissed McNair’s concerns and defended the use of the book as “only optional reading.” In response, the McNairs informed the school that they no longer wanted their name on one of the school’s buildings and suggested that the school secure what the newspaper described as “donations from alternative sources.”

Why would any school believe that a story featuring explicit sexual acts — heterosexual or homosexual — would be appropriate reading fare for teenagers? How could any school that claims to educate children in “a Christian environment” justify such a story within its curriculum, optional or otherwise?

A NOTE ABOUT THE MOVIE: Brokeback Mountain is to open in theaters nationwide on December 9. The leading male characters are played by actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Further coverage of the film will appear in coming weeks.