The investigation of Viki Knox -- the Union High School teacher whose homophobic posts on her personal Facebook page created a national frenzy -- demonstrates just how far we've come in the area of civil rights for gays and lesbians. Twenty years ago, as the Internet was in its infancy, we were far more likely to see a large protest against a gay history display at school rather than a national outcry condemning a teacher's prejudice against gays.
The school district has acted appropriately by investigating whether Knox's strongly expressed religious beliefs have seeped into her classroom, as her online comments suggest, or whether her prejudices prevent her from complying with New Jersey's laws against discrimination and bullying. The school district also acted appropriately by resisting intense public pressure to fire Knox for airing personal opinions, albeit offensive ones, that she did not expect would go viral. Knox may voice a biased position, but that does not justify the suspension of due process.
It's a teachable moment from the mistakes of a schoolteacher, with enough lessons to go around. Lesson one: teachers have a right to express personal views, offensive or not, at home, on their own time, without losing their jobs. Lesson two: expressing controversial views in public comes with risks. Lesson three: teachers have a right to due process if accused of misconduct. Lesson four: teachers do not have a right to express discriminatory beliefs or impose their religious views in the classroom.
Unfortunately, evidence has emerged that Knox did, in fact, spread her discriminatory beliefs in the classroom, with students coming forward to complain of rights violations. If Knox has taught discrimination or preached her religious views in the classroom, she will have to face the consequences.
However, the folks trying to teach Knox a lesson by punishing her for her prejudices rather than helping her shed them could benefit from another lesson, this one from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: when the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it.
After watching footage of the dueling protesters at Tuesday night's Union Township school board meeting, it's hard to argue that this particular battle helps to win the war, especially if equal treatment and regard for LGBT people are the intended spoils.
Pouring on outrage draws stark battle lines, thwarting any chance of helping Knox -- or those watching and absorbing the drama -- open and change her mind. Publicly shaming her and demanding her termination without due process only serve to alienate and delineate sides, teaching a harmful lesson to people who hold beliefs like Knox's that they should suppress their beliefs, pushing them underground, where they will only intensify.
In this case, an opportunity to open a dialogue and introduce people who still fear their LGBT neighbors to some of New Jersey's lesbian and gay families was lost. We missed a chance to show Knox and the millions like her that we have more in common with one another than not.
While it feels unfair to extend an olive branch to someone who unjustly rejects you, you can't gain ground in any struggle without building bridges. If anyone would know, it's Oscar Wilde, a man whose life was destroyed by persecution over his sexual orientation. As he said: always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.
This piece originally appeared in the Star-Ledger.