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FACT CHECK: The Right-Wing Smear Campaign Against Kevin Jennings

The right wing has a new target: Kevin Jennings, whom President Obama appointed Assistant Deputy Secretary at the Department of Education for the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools (OSDFS). Jennings has had a distinguished career as a teacher, author, and founder of Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), an organization that works to make schools safe for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

It is primarily Jennings’ work with GLSEN that has so outraged the far right. The Family Research Council (FRC) launched the “Stop Kevin Jennings” campaign this week, warning that he is a “radical homosexual activist” who has “worked tirelessly to bring the homosexual agenda into our nation’s classrooms.” “His history demonstrates disregard for our obligations to safeguard the health and well being of the student population,” writes FRC President Tony Perkins.

ThinkProgress investigated FRC’s claims and spoke to people who have worked with Jennings. A look at some of the “facts” about him:

FRC CLAIM: “Jennings’ and GLSEN’s concept of ‘safe schools’ means special protections for privileged groups (especially homosexuals), rather than safety for all.”FACT: As the gay son of a Southern baptist preacher, Jennings had a “childhood of prejudice, taunts, and harassment.” As an education leader, he has used those experiences to promote tolerance and anti-bullying measures in schools nationwide. ThinkProgress spoke with Molly Spearman, executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators. Spearman first heard Jennings speak at the 2007 convention of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). Spearman said that she was so impressed with Jennings, she decided to invite him to speak at her organization’s October 2007 summit on bullying:

I was a little nervous, being in South Carolina, a very conservative state. But once again, he handled it extremely professionally. He did a magnificent job, and it was a huge success. We had a waiting list of people who wanted to come. … We had several hundred people there. … He was very very well-received — absolutely rave views. And that was in conservative South Carolina. So he handled what could have been a very sensitive topic in a very professional way that was accepted by everyone.

Spearman added that while Jennings did present statistics on the harassment of LGBT students, he more broadly focused on the bullying of all students, pointing out that it was a problem that wasn’t specifically confined to one group.

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FRC CLAIM: “Jennings is viciously hostile to religion.” FACT: As proof of this claim, FRC points to a passage from Jennings’ memoir:

God…had done nothing but cause me pain and anguish through His inaction and malevolence throughout my childhood. … What had he done for me, other than make me feel shame and guilt? Squat. Screw you, buddy — I don’t need you around anymore, I decided.

As the blog Good As You noted, Jennings was relaying “his frustrations as a gay teen, when his inability to ‘overcome’ his gay desires convinced him that he was detached from God.” FRC also doesn’t bother to include what Jennings writes a few sentences later: that he later returned to religion. “Decades passed before I opened a Bible again.” Jennings later went on to serve as an active member on the board of the Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in New York, the nation’s most prestigious Protestant seminary. ThinkProgress spoke with Rev. Serene Jones, President of UTS, who disputed any claims that Jennings was anti-religion:

In my role as the president [of UTS], and as pastor, I have met few people as deeply Christian and as deeply committed to the work of justice in the world than Kevin Jennings. He’s a man of enormous faith, and not just in terms of prayer and church attendance — both of which he does devoutly — but in terms of his care for the poor, the suffering, the children, the vulnerable in our society. […]

He’s an active member of the board at Union Theological Seminary and Kevin Jennings tithes, not only in terms of his use of money, but his use of his time and his values and I just wonder how many of the people who are attacking him have taken their own faith serious enough to make the kind of financial, moral, vocational commitment that Kevin Jennings has made with his life.

FRC also points to a speech Jennings gave in 2000, where he allegedly said, “We have to quit being afraid of the religious right. … I’m trying not to say, ‘F*ck ‘em!’ which is what I want to say, because I don’t care what they think! Drop dead!” There appears to be no full transcript available of this 2000 speech; it seems to first appear in a 2002 article on the right-wing website Concerned Women for America. The same day that article was published (4/10/02), Jennings told NPR that he had “no recollection of [that] quote whatsoever.”

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FRC Claim: Jennings is “unfit for the post to which he’s been assigned.”FACT: Jennings, in fact, will be the first head of OSDFS in years to have a background as an educator. His predecessor, Deborah Price, received her BS degree in home economics, worked on the National Prayer Breakfast, on the Senate Republican Policy Committee, and then doing student aid in the Department of Education. Her predecessor, Eric Andell, was a judge from Texas and was eventually fired. He “pleaded guilty in federal court to one misdemeanor count of conflict of interest that included using federal money to pay for personal expenses.” Jennings has received many mainstream education awards, including the Distinguished Service Award of NASSP. ThinkProgress spoke to NASSP Executive Director Gerald Tirozzi, who wrote a recommendation letter on Jennings’ behalf. He said that he has “always been impressed with Kevin and his forthrightness. He’s a very courageous young man.” Tirozzi stressed that Jennings’ work on school bullying made him an ideal fit for this particular position.

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As Good As You has noted, FRC and other right-wing sites are trying to take other parts of Jennings’ memoir — such as the fact that Jennings admitted to using drugs while in high school and that he wanted to make sure that a high school student had practiced safe sex — as evidence that he doesn’t have the “ethical standards needed for public service.”

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So what is FRC’s real problem with Jennings? Tellingly, FRC Vice President for Policy Peter Sprigg — the author of the anti-Jennings talking points — once said, “I would much prefer to export homosexuals from the United States than to import them into the United States because we believe homosexuality is destructive to society.”

Update:

GLSEN has started a petition to “stop the anti-gay slander against Kevin Jennings.” You can sign it here.