OLEAN – More than 100 community members gathered at Olean’s board meeting on Tuesday to voice their concerns and support for Joel Whitcher, principal of Olean Intermediate School, and his religious practice .
A series of videos shared on a Facebook page shows Whitcher, pastor of the Fresh Fire Worship Center in Allegany, speaking on topics including same-sex marriage, Islam, politics, mental health, poverty and COVID-19.
“Abortion is outside the government of God. Same-sex marriage is outside the government of God. Muslims – it’s outside the government of God, ”he said in a sermon.
“Remember the church is to infiltrate politics. Politics is not about infiltrating the church, ”he said in another sermon.
“You shouldn’t have cancer in your flesh. You shouldn’t have diabetes in your blood. You shouldn’t be sensitive to Covid, ”he said.
Those calling for Whitcher’s impeachment say his preaching is hate speech against gays, Muslims, Democrats and pro-choice people. Others supporting Whitcher say the principal has never expressed hatred and loves the neighborhood kids.
“We have a wonderful community. This education council will address this issue, ”Superintendent Rick Moore said at the meeting. “I have probably received 150 emails and calls about this, and I just want to say that everyone I spoke to was extremely respectful.”
Requests for comment to Whitcher were not returned on Tuesday.
A petition on change.org calling for Whitcher’s impeachment was created Monday night by an Olean student. He had received more than 700 signatures on Tuesday evening.
“Collectively, the OHS student body has established that absolutely nothing in this behavior is acceptable, and we do not feel comfortable with this man working in a school environment that claims to be a safe and inclusive institution. , without discrimination, ”says the petition. . “Mr. Whitcher has offended countless students, parents and community members before, and if he retains his position as principal of Olean Middle School, he will continue to do so.
Eric Maurouard, the first to address the school board on Tuesday, said he believed in the protections of the Constitution’s First Amendment and that everyone has the right to practice the religion of their choice, but the school board cannot ignore the situation with Whitcher.
“Mr. Whitcher has openly stated that he and other educators have ‘infiltrated’ the school system with their religion,” said Maurouard, referring to one of the videos posted on Facebook. “This cannot happen in a public school. “
Sean Obergfell, pastor of the Chapel of Believers in Olean, said a group of people taking offense at what Whitcher said at Whitcher’s place of worship is what prompted so many to attend the meeting of the school council.
Obergfell said the incident had nothing to do with the LGBTQ community or people wearing no-hate t-shirts in schools. He said it was about exercising freedom and wondered if the school board would take action against other district employees if they were exercising their religious beliefs.
“It’s a very diverse community, and you have a very diverse staff,” he said. “Sir. Whitcher didn’t come to show hatred at this school. That’s not true.”
Timothy Sherlock said the issue is about equality, what is fair and just, and said the school board hasn’t figured it out for over a decade.
Sherlock said Whitcher had done well for his family and kept his work and religious beliefs separate until now. Sherlock asked how a student could come to Whitcher and feel safe in terms of sexual orientation or acceptance in general.
“I went to this school myself and I know what it was like to be gay in this school and not be accepted, and here I am 20 years later supporting it,” he said. declared. “What I cannot stand and allow is that this school board and this school system is so far removed from the ideals of humanity that we get to be where we are.”
Leo Wolters-Tejera, a Christian minister who identifies as transgender and has a child who attends the district, said the issue was not about religion or an individual but an issue with the school district regarding student protection.
Wolters-Tejera said he has received calls from several students in recent days following the posting of the videos, reassuring them that they are not flawed and belong to the community.
“It’s not about freedom of religion and Joel Whitcher,” Wolters-Tejera said. “This is a school system that has no guarantees in place for its children.”
Speaking to the Olean Times Herald after the meeting, Moore said he was unable to comment specifically on Whitcher’s situation as it is a personnel matter, but said the district had received numerous appeals of concern about the incident.
“We think we can come to an agreement,” he said. “I think it’s gonna be a happy ending actually.”
Moore said there is a lot of diversity in the school district and among the students and school operations run smoothly on a day-to-day basis.
“Unfortunately, it happened off campus and then on campus,” he added. “We have great advice and we will solve it. “
In June 2018, a comment from an Olean Title IX School compliance officer about a child-friendly drag queen party raised questions about whether it could fairly consider complaints of gender-based harassment and sexual orientation.
An organized group of about 25 community members attended a tense Education Council meeting on June 27 to seek answers to what they perceive to be an anti-LGBTQ comment made by the company’s Facebook account. former director of special education at OCSD.
In another user’s public post on a June 20 event in which a drag queen read books to children at the Olean Public Library, the former administrator’s account commented that ” kind come directly from Satan “and children” should not be exposed to this at such a young age.
The administrator was ultimately removed from his role as Title IX compliance officer, to whom harassment complaints should be brought.