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Pregnant Student Barred From Graduation At Md. Christian School


Today is graduation day at Heritage Academy. It's a conservative, evangelical Christian school in Hagerstown, Md. Fifteen students have earned high school diplomas; only 14 will be on stage, though. One girl is barred from the ceremony because she's pregnant. NPR's Tom Gjelten has the story.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: A year ago, Maddi Runkles was known in her little Christian school as a model, straight-A student. But then she broke her school's moral code by having premarital sex. Not long after, she found herself standing before a school assembly in tears, confessing she had made a mistake. As a result, she had gotten pregnant. But she said she was prepared to keep the baby and accept the consequences. Her stand has made her a hero in the anti-abortion world.

MADDI RUNKLES: These right here are notes that I've received - or letters that I've received from strangers. So I'm busy writing thank you letters to them. So this is all...

GJELTEN: The notes praise Maddi for deciding at the age of 18 to choose having a baby boy over abortion. She's not identifying the father. He's not from her school, and they do not plan to marry.

RUNKLES: I've gotten a lot of diapers, which is all in these boxes and wipes and then over here I've gotten a lot of...

GJELTEN: The outpouring of support for Maddi is because many people think her punishment for breaking her school's moral code is excessive. She was suspended for two days and stripped of her position as student council president. Plus, she has to stay away from tonight's graduation.

KRISTAN HAWKINS: Which is really a punishment for being pregnant because her baby bump is visible.

GJELTEN: Kristan Hawkins is president of Students for Life, one of many anti-abortion organizations supporting Maddi. In a statement on the Heritage Academy website, the school principal, David Hobbs, said Maddi is being disciplined not because she's pregnant but because she was immoral. He did not agree to an interview. Maddi Runkles argues that by shaming teenage Christian girls who get pregnant, school authorities promote abortion.

RUNKLES: You know, it's making it seem like that's the easier option, like, the best route to go because you see Christians especially forgive people who have had abortions, and they don't think twice about it. But then the girl who's pregnant, they kind of just do away with her, and they don't really want anything to do with her.

GJELTEN: For some Christians, this case raises a tough question. Should a religious school emphasize promoting chastity over opposing abortion or vice versa? One of the few who have spoken out in support of the Heritage position is Michael Matt, a conservative Catholic who publishes a newspaper called The Remnant and has his own YouTube channel. He thinks that disciplining Maddi Runkles goes after the root cause of abortion.

MICHAEL MATT: Which is the breakdown of sexual morality in society. I think the school did the right thing. Actions have consequences.

GJELTEN: Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life does not buy the argument that allowing Maddi to participate in graduation would signal that premarital sex is OK.

HAWKINS: I think every student at that school knows the sacrifices Maddi has had to make for her preborn son, and I don't think any student looks at Maddi and says, oh, gosh, I want to be pregnant like her.

GJELTEN: Maddi is due in the fall. She'll be living at home with her parents. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDITORY CANVAS' "SPRING RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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