Senior Amanda Lemon, 18, with a 3.8 GPA, was invited to join the Xenia (Ohio) High School National Honor Society (NHS). That invitation was withdrawn when the faculty council learned that Lemon has a 9-month-old daughter. Lemon filed a grievance with the school's principal alleging that the withdrawal violates federal law.
Lemon has organizations, with litigation in their blood, lined up with offers of assistance. The American Association of University Women, that profound group whose recommendations run contra to its own research, calls the NHS definition of character "seriously flawed" in that it "unfairly disadvantages girls or openly gay students." AAUW's insertion of gay rights is mystifying, but its disparate treatment argument is flawed for NHS does not admit boys with children either.Nonetheless, young men are better (or in this case, lesser) equipped for hiding out-of-wedlock children and disparate impact is judicially problematic. Among Title IX, equal protection, and the establishment clause, Lemon will find shelter and an NHS membership. Public schools can't sponsor a chorus of "The First Noel," let alone an organization that promotes abstinence, which, we are told, is a moral value, in violation of the judicial goal of separation from church.
The inevitable legal conclusion in the case seems to be the resolution of the underlying ethical and moral questions as well. It should not be so, for the moral issues in this case are head turners.
The case offers the challenge of defining character. The NHS definition includes not getting pregnant before marriage. Ignoring religious underpinnings, the NHS is, with this standard, promoting a desirable end. The Economist, a thoughtful, though liberal, British publication, found three factors in a longitudinal study that are a guarantee against poverty: not having children before marriage, finishing high school, and getting married and staying married. The NHS is trying to prevent two variables in the poverty equation. Such a character standard ensures success but produces backlash because it is "mean."
Part of defining character is, however, examining ethics in the breach. Following what was at least one act of premarital sex, Lemon made the noble choice of preserving life. She did not compound her mistake, but rather carried a child, gave birth, and now, with supportive parents, is raising her daughter and finishing high school. We have been given a mirror into Lemon's soul. She deserves our respect for what has surely been difficult.
But there is yet another moral issue in the scenario and it is the right of an organization to uphold its established standards. NHS believes high school students who have children are not appropriate role models. Students in an honor society should be role models. Admitting Lemon is a signal to students that premarital sexual behavior carries no sanctions. Alas, this case is not an NHS issue. This case arises because public education and society "mainstreamed" pregnant teenagers. There was a time when Lemon and her parents would never request an NHS membership. But with out-of-wedlock births at 31 percent, there is no longer a stigma and chastity as a sign of character is a tough sell.
That Xenia NHS will lose a court battle is not a shock. The shock is that the answer will be determined in that forum, for the moral battlefield no longer exists. Character standards as criteria for admission are meaningless when society does not consider immorality a problem.
There exists a remarkable rebellion against rules through a defiant unwillingness to enforce them. A manager of a tire store called me for advice when one of his employees embezzled $8,000. The employee had confessed (ethics in the breach), but explained that he took the money to give his children a nice Christmas. Eight grand is slightly above the mean for nice Christmases, but the manager was moved and asked if he should fire the employee.
My response was that he had to fire the employee to preserve his business. Other employees were watching and sanctions are deterrents. The manager fretted, "But those kids - their dad won't have a job at Christmas." I advised him to fire the employee and give the children a nice Christmas himself.
And so it is with Lemon. Her admission to NHS sends a clear signal to the other students that mistakes carry no sanctions. Glorify enough of those with missteps and the bar goes down. Soon there are more with missteps than not. In 1990, out-of-wedlock births were at 26 percent. In 1985, the figure was 22 percent. The NHS standard should stand, but NHS members should help Lemon and her child to take that 3.8 and their determination on to college. Enforcing rules is not cruel. Conduct has consequences and mistakes have opportunity costs.
That personal reform follows a violation of a standard should not be used as a justification for dismissing the standard; rather, it should be used as the reason for embracing the mistaken and assisting them in their uphill climb.