Sunnie Kahle and her great-grandparents live just four minutes down the road from Timberlake Christian Schools, but in the past few weeks, a gulf has opened up between the family and the school.
Doris Thompson said she stopped sending 8-year-old Sunnie to the private school near Lynchburg after a late February letter arrived with what seemed like an ultimatum.
It asked Thompson to either help Sunnie to dress and behave more femininely or consider not enrolling the second-grader again in the fall.
Thompson’s husband Carroll chose to share the letter with a local television station, which broadcast a story about Sunnie on Monday. That story sparked a firestorm of national, and even international, publicity.
On Wednesday, Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel and dean of the Liberty University School of Law, issued a statement saying Liberty Counsel would publicly represent the school.
“This matter is far beyond a simple ‘hairstyle and tomboy issue’ as inaccurately portrayed,” the statement said.
School business administrator Earl Prince said Wednesday the school would hold off on commenting further, at least for the night.
Doris Thompson said she heard an apology from a Timberlake Baptist Church pastor who told her she should have been contacted for an in-person appointment, rather than receiving those concerns in a letter.
She said forgiveness is something she’ll have to pray and think on.
The Thompsons have been fielding a steady stream of phone calls since they went public with their story, which has blown up on the Internet as dozens of media and other outlets report and comment on the story. News outlets including CBS News, Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and the Washington Post have picked up the story.
The Thompsons adopted their great-granddaughter Sunnie as a baby and have been raising her as their own. They chose to send her to Timberlake Christian Schools starting in preschool.
“It’s a Christian, private school and I wanted Sunnie to have a Christian education,” Doris Thompson explained.
That same year, Thompson said, Sunnie decided she wanted to wear boy-style clothing and cut her hair short. She gave the extra hair away to a child with cancer.
Thompson said the girl’s pre-K teacher raised questions and concerns with her about Sunnie’s gender identity and behavior, so Thompson sought an outside opinion.
“I took her to the doctor and I asked the doctor and he said, ‘Leave that child alone,'” Thompson explained.
She said she feels confident about her choice to not try to push Sunnie to be more feminine and to let her make decisions for herself.
Thompson said Sunnie, who now attends public school in Campbell County, goes to counseling and gets professional help for mood swings, but that counseling is not specifically targeted at discussing gender identity.
Asked Wednesday if “she” was the right pronoun to use for her in the interview, Sunnie said, “Yes.”
Starting in kindergarten, she wore the school uniform with a collared TCS shirt except on dress-down or dress-up days a couple of times a year. Like other girls at the school, she could choose to wear slacks or a skirt, and she chose slacks.
Thompson said Sunnie had an issue in kindergarten when a girl thought Sunnie was a boy in the girls’ bathroom. The incident led her kindergarten teacher raise concerns about Sunnie’s gender identity again.
Sunnie and Thompson said they both liked Sunnie’s first-grade teacher who didn’t raise the same kinds of issues.
“She was the best teacher ever,” Sunnie said.
Thompson said during the first semester of second grade, some boys tried to pull Sunnie into a boys’ bathroom at the school. That incident, Thompson said, brought concerns from the school about Sunnie’s gender expression and appearance to the forefront again.
A couple months later, the letter arrived.
“We love Sunnie and do want the best for her,” Principal Becky Bowman wrote in the letter sent to the Thompsons. “We would miss her presence here, but we do not want her future years be filled [with] confusion and conflicting input from those who are guiding her.”
At the same time, the letter included a paragraph about reserving the right to refuse readmission to a student if the “atmosphere or conduct” within a home is in opposition to “the biblical lifestyle that the school teaches.”
“This includes, but is not necessarily limited to, living in, condoning or supporting sexual immorality; practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity; promoting such practices; or otherwise having the ability to support the moral principles of the school.”
Among other Bible passages, that paragraph referred to the Old Testament Bible passage Leviticus 20:13a, though it did not quote the scripture. The text of Leviticus 20:13 in the New International Version on Bible Gateway.com is: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
Wednesday’s news release, issued by Liberty Counsel on behalf of the school, noted TCS is “limited in what can be related about this situation.”
“This matter is far beyond a simple ‘hairstyle and tomboy issue’ ... The School has never told S.K. she cannot return to school,” it stated.
“Parents and guardians send their children to the School because of our Christian beliefs and standards. We have a duty to create an environment that is supportive of these Christian values. We cannot have conflicting messages or standards because such conflict will confuse our students and frustrate the parents and guardians who have entrusted the education of their children to us.
“When elementary children and their parents or guardians express concerns regarding use of the restroom and other matters arising from the sensitive issues here, the School has a duty to address those concerns and to ensure that all interests are heard and protected in accordance with the Christian mission of the School.
“While we welcome all students, parents and guardians are made aware of the School’s Christian mission and beliefs. We not only have a right, but we also have a duty to uphold these Christian standards.”