High school senior Maddi Runkles will not be allowed to take part in the June graduation ceremony at Heritage Academy, a small Christian school in Boonsboro, Maryland, because she is pregnant.
The 18-year-old has a 4.0 average, was president of the student council, and has been praised by Students for Life, a Christian anti-abortion organization based in Washington D.C.
Kristan Hawkins, the Students for Life president, told The New York Times: "[Maddi] made the courageous decision to choose life, and she definitely should not be shamed. There has got to be a way to treat a young woman who becomes pregnant in a graceful and loving way."
Hawkins tried and failed to convince the Heritage Academy to change its mind.
David Hobbs, the administrator at Heritage Academy, said in a written statement that Maddi would earn a diploma, and referred to Maddi's pregnancy as an "an internal issue about which much prayer and discussion has taken place."
The Heritage Academy website often uses the word "virtuous" in discussing the school's goals:
While modeling virtuous conduct and facilitating a comprehensive core curriculum, we emphasize the value of respecting and nurturing the child’s dignity as a person while offering them an atmosphere which reflects honor, kindness, and scholarship ... Our priority is to cultivate an enduring desire to learn and to promote virtuous character.
Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who directs the National Marriage Project, explained how the two Christian organizations were at odds:
You have these two competing values. On the one hand, the school is seeking to maintain some kind of commitment to what has classically been called chastity -- or today might be called abstinence. At the same time, there’s an expectation in many Christian circles that we are doing all that we can to honor life.
Rick Kempton, chairman of the board of the Association of Christian Schools International, noted other girls might want to get pregnant because Maddi did:
There’s a biblical term that many Christian schools use, and it is the whole idea of grace: What would Jesus do? She’s making the right choice. But you don’t want to create a celebration that makes other young ladies feel like, "Well, that seems like a pretty good option."
Maddi was suspended for two days during deliberations by the school board -- which at the time was headed by her father Scott. Her father ultimately quit his position over how his daughter was treated:
Typically, when somebody breaks a rule, you punish them at the time they break the rule. That way, the punishment is behind them and they’re moving forward with a clean slate. With Maddi, her punishment was set four months out. It’s ruined her senior year.
The National Association of Evangelicals calculated numbers from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in 2009 and found that 80 percent of young evangelicals had sex before marriage.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 54 percent of women who have abortions self-identity as Christians.
Jessica Klick, who is the athletic director at Heritage Academy in addition to being a mentor to Maddi, said she had two abortions; she later had two sons with her husband.
The 40-year-old said she felt pressured into ending her pregnancies because she was scared of what her religious parents would think.
"I went into an abortion clinic knowing I shouldn’t, and God was the last thing on my mind," Klick recalled.
Maddi identifies herself as "a practicing born-again Christian," and calls her future baby "a blessing."
Maddi knew she would face punishment "because I did break the school code," but says she was treated worse than students who have been suspended for underage drinking.
Sara Moslener, who teaches philosophy and religion at Central Michigan University, said Maddi's situation sounded "very 'Scarlet Letter' to me."
Maddi suggested the Christian school's reaction would have been tamer if she had an abortion:
Some pro-life people are against the killing of unborn babies, but they won’t speak out in support of the girl who chooses to keep her baby. Honestly, that makes me feel like maybe the abortion would have been better. Then they would have just forgiven me, rather than deal with this visible consequence.
Maddi has been accepted to Bob Jones University, a very strict Christian college in Greenville, South Carolina.