Romance novelist Nicholas Sparks (“The Notebook”) has come under fire for founding a Christian school that promoted biblical views on sexual morality.
According to The Daily Beast, in 2006, Sparks helped co-found a prep school in New Bern, North Carolina, called the Epiphany School of Global Studies, which sought to become a “faith-based academy focused on world issues with an emphasis on language-learning, regular visits to other nations, and a shared understanding that ‘learning about the world’ was an integral part of 21st-century life.” With a student body of just 500, the school also sought to promote Judeo-Christian values.
Since 2014, however, legal documents show that Sparks and the school’s board of trustees have been battling Epiphany’s former headmaster and CEO, Saul Benjamin, who alleges the school engaged in various forms of bigotry.
“Sparks and members of the Board unapologetically marginalized, bullied, and harassed members of the School community,” Benjamin’s attorneys alleged in the complaint, “whose religious views and/or identities did not conform to their religiously driven, bigoted preconceptions.”
Though Benjamin alleges that Sparks engaged in forms of racial discrimination against black students attending the school, he provides no evidence and only claims that the author attributed the dearth of black students at the school to cultural and economic differences. Without evidence, Benjamin also alleges that one of the school’s board members told him she specifically avoids a Wal-Mart staffed by black people and that he was subjected to “unwelcome comments and increased scrutiny” when he hired the first full-time black faculty member.
None of that suggests Benjamin’s accusations of racial discrimination are false, but it’s odd that The Daily Beast article dwells very little on that portion of his complaint — the most serious allegation against the school. In fact, the only evidence presented of Sparks directly addressing the school’s diversity issue is an email in which he tells Benjamin of his current plans to create a scholarship program for diversity.
“If you want to talk to someone about diversity, talk to Jenna (who’s designing the diversity scholarship program) or me (who will be responsible for raising the money to fund the scholarship program once Jenna has designed it),” the email states.
Instead, The Daily Beast dedicates a majority of the article to Benjamin’s allegations about Epiphany’s Christian conservative beliefs regarding LGBT issues. According to Benjamin, LGBT students at the school began meeting in private, forming a club of sorts, which resulted in instances of bullying when word spread about the group. From the report:
The incident seeded tension among the student body and staff. Rumor spread that Benjamin had formed what Sparks called a “gay club,” and the Board of Trustees insisted the club be banned. Two bisexual teachers approached administrators about the group, and were allegedly threatened with termination if they continued to discuss the issue, according to Benjamin’s complaint. It further alleges that at a board meeting on Oct. 30, 2013, a Board of Trustees member claimed Benjamin was “promoting a homosexual culture and agenda.” Sparks allegedly warned Benjamin against pushing the subject, suggesting it would be “wasting time on a side issue,” according to the complaint.
By November, resentments were running high. That month, Benjamin states in his complaint that two LGBT students approached Benjamin and informed him of their plan to stage a protest during chapel. They planned to remove their clothes and announce their orientation in body paint. Benjamin says he asked the girls not to protest, claiming it “was a time for healing, not heroics.” Instead, in the Friday morning Chapel Talk, a weekly tradition at the school, Benjamin spoke about bullying, and the school’s commitment to “loving their neighbors.”
In an email, Sparks expressed anger and frustration with Benjamin, whom he said had earned a reputation among the faculty for being elitist and dismissive of Christian beliefs. “I told you this would happen… if you didn’t follow our advice, which was simply ‘don’t rock the boat on this particular issue,'” Sparks said in the email before later advising him to make sure “all Christian traditions feel especially Christian, especially as we move into the Christmas season.”
In another email, Sparks noted that the school allowed LGBT students to attend but simply did not want them to form a club, which would violate the school’s beliefs. Eventually, the tensions resulted in Benjamin being fired from his position as headmaster and CEO. In October 2014, he filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination, breach of contract, emotional distress and defamation, which will go to trial this August.
In a declaration, Nicholas Sparks denied all the allegations brought against the school, asserting that Benjamin lost his job as headmaster of the Christian school for being “aloof, even rude, elitist and dismissive of their beliefs or backgrounds.” He also claims that Benjamin intentionally tried to start an LGBT club on campus in violation of the school’s policy.