A private Christian school in Oklahoma allegedly expelled a second grader and cut ties with her family after she told a female classmate that she had a crush on her.
The student’s mom, Delanie Shelton, told NBC News that she received a call Jan. 21 from the Rejoice Christian School in Owasso, just outside Tulsa, telling her that she had to pick up her 8-year-old daughter, Chloe, after an “incident on the playground.”
Shelton said when she arrived at the school, Vice Principal Kelli Owens asked her how she feels “about girls liking girls.”
“I said, ‘Well, if I'm being honest with you, I think it's OK for girls to like girls,’ and I mean, she looked like disgusted and surprised at my answer,” Shelton said.
She said Principal Rita Woolf asked her where Chloe learned “this kind of language about the word ‘gay,’” to which Shelton said she responded by noting that gay couples are represented in many kids’ television shows, adding, “unless you completely shelter your children, it's just part of life.”
Shelton said the school officials told her to take her daughter home and not to bring her back the next day. When they got home, Shelton said Chloe started crying and told her that a teacher said, “The Bible says that you can only marry a man, and you can only have kids with a man, and it's a sin for girls to like girls, and it's not in the Bible, and it's not OK in God's eyes.”
“She was crying and just asking me if God still loved her, and, you know, if she was wrong for feeling the way that she does,” Shelton added.
Shelton said the situation was “heartbreaking” for her and said she assured Chloe that God loves her and always will.
“You know, a school that's supposed to be teaching specifically God's love and grace and forgiveness, and no matter what, to make an 8-year-old question if God loves her is just not OK,” she said.
Shelton said she received a call the following day from Superintendent Joel Pepin, who informed her that Rejoice would be “ending their partnership” with the Shelton family — including Chloe’s 5-year-old brother, Oliver — because the family’s beliefs did not align with that of the school.
Officials from Rejoice Christian School did not respond to requests for comment regarding Chloe’s expulsion. However, on Jan. 28, Pepin released a statement saying, “Due to privacy and other factors, it is the school’s policy to refrain from public comments regarding any particular student or family.”
Access to the school’s handbook, which is online, is restricted, so NBC News could not view it firsthand. However, based on screenshots shared by Shelton, it appears the school has changed the handbook since it parted ways with the Shelton family, though neither version addresses same-sex relationships. In a screenshot taken by Shelton the day Chloe was expelled, the handbook stated that “boyfriend-girlfriend relationships while at school” are prohibited. In a second screenshot taken Tuesday, it stated that students could build relationships “based on purity,” but that “inappropriate displays” of affection are not allowed.
Shelton said that she didn’t closely examine the handbook for its policy on same-sex relationships when she enrolled Chloe at 4 years old.
Since Chloe was expelled, Woolf has refused to have a sit down meeting with the family, according to Shelton.
“They weren't willing to speak with me, I guess, about anything,” she said. “Just kicked my kids out after four years of going there, and we went to their church and Chloe did basketball and cheer for them, so it was like a huge part of our life. It was more than just school.”
Shelton has since enrolled Chloe and Oliver in a new school and said the family has received both local and national support since the incident. The households that live across the street from Rejoice organized a drive-by parade for Chloe and put signs up with supportive messages in their yards, and the family has received cards in the mail.
“It's just made her feel so much more comfortable being herself and knowing that God still loves her and all these people that don't even know her support her and love her as well,” Shelton said.
The family hasn’t pursued legal action, but Shelton said “the possibility is still on the table.”
It’s unclear, though, whether a lawsuit would go in the family’s favor. Paul Castillo, an attorney and students’ rights strategist at Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ legal advocacy group, said private religious schools are governed by slightly different standards than public schools and could be exempt from some federal nondiscrimination protections, even if they receive federal funding. In fact, Rejoice received over $1 million in April through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program for Covid-19 relief.
In addition, Oklahoma’s nondiscrimination laws do not include LGBTQ people.
Religious schools aren’t required by federal law to publish their position on same-sex relationships, for example, so many parents enroll their kids in religious schools and are later caught by surprise if the school states that it is opposed to same-sex marriage, according to Castillo.
“It's important for parents and prospective parents to have a look at the school and make inquiries about diversity and inclusion,” Castillo said, noting that there are private religious schools that embrace LGBTQ families.
As for Chloe, Shelton said, what she wants might change as she grows. Shelton just wants her to know that “no matter who she ends up loving, she will be supported and loved, no matter what.”