Iowa 4-H director fired after gay, transgender inclusion policy inflames conservative groups

DES MOINES, Iowa — The leader of Iowa 4-H Youth Development was fired Thursday, just a week before the start of the Iowa State Fair, the focal point of the 4-H calendar.

John-Paul Chaisson-Cárdenas, the first Latino statewide youth leader in 4-H's 115-year history, confirmed his departure but declined to provide details when reached by phone in Ames.

His termination comes months after a suggested 4-H LGBTQ inclusion policy, which has since been withdrawn, drew rebuke from conservative groups and praise from LGBT advocates, resulting in hundreds of comments submitted to Iowa 4-H.

"Through my life and through my career I have always tried to foster inclusive environments that welcome diversity for all youth and all people," Chaisson-Cárdenas said. "That's what I believe my career was built upon."

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In a termination letter the Des Moines Register obtained, John Lawrence, Chaisson-Cárdenas' boss and Iowa State University's vice president of extension and outreach, wrote that he "decided to make a change in the leadership of the 4-H Youth Development Program."

“Your letter of intent states that your position serves at the pleasure of the administration,” Lawrence wrote. "At this time, I have decided to exercise that provision and terminate your employment … effective immediately."

Asked Friday for clarification, Lawrence issued a statement acknowledging "a leadership transition."

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"Andrea Nelson, director of Region 13 ISU Extension and Outreach, will serve as interim program director while a national search is conducted for a permanent successor," Lawrence wrote in an email. "Under Andrea’s leadership, 4-H Youth Development at Iowa State University will continue its long and successful record of engaging young people across the state."

By Thursday afternoon, Chaisson-Cárdenas' information had been deleted from the Iowa 4-H website, and Nelson was listed as interim program director.

Chaisson-Cárdenas' departure comes after Iowa 4-H's decision not to adopt proposed LGBTQ inclusion regulations that advocates saw as a step forward for gay and transgender student rights.

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"I hope his firing was not based off his support of this policy," said Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools. "If it is, that's very disheartening because it's sending the message that LGBTQ kids aren't welcome in 4-H."

"Frankly, I’m shocked," Monson said. "All I have heard about John-Paul is that he really raised the bar for 4-H in Iowa as far as creating a space for all kids and allowing all kids the chance to participate safely and on equal footing.”

How we got here

The discussion of LGBT inclusion in 4-H started after conservative corners of the internet discovered a document — "4-H Guidance for Inclusion of Individuals of All Gender Identities, Gender Expressions, Sexual Orientations, and Sexes" — posted to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture website.

That guidance called for 4-H to treat all students in ways consistent with their gender identity, the deeply held sense of who one is that may differ from the sex organs with which one was born, and to allow those students “equal access” even in circumstances where families or community members “raise objections.”

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“As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a practice that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of individual,” the suggested national proposal reads.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, administers the greater 4-H organization. However, local councils are supported more directly through the extension services of a network of public universities.

In Iowa, Iowa State in Ames is 4-H's supporting partner.

A version of the inclusion policy found on the National Institute's website, since removed, was then opened for comment in early spring on the Iowa 4-H Regulations and Guidance page.

Posting that policy publicly was a mistake, Lawrence told the Register in late May.

“Quite frankly, what was posted up there didn’t go through the process,” he said, declining to identify who posted the proposed guidelines. “For one, 4-H doesn’t make policy, Iowa State does, and so it was posted without the rest of the university knowing about it."

After the Register covered the controversy surrounding proposed changes in mid-April, the Liberty Counsel, a law and policy firm that promotes Christian values, sent Iowa State a six-page letter requesting the university reject the suggested guidelines.

4-H employees, parents and students concerned the proposed policy didn’t align with their religious beliefs contacted the counsel, Mary McAlister, lead attorney on the case, said previously.

"The guidance is discriminatory, unconstitutional and without legal authority," McAlister wrote in the letter. "It misstates the law regarding protected classes, and falsely adds ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity or expression’ … (elevating) them above statutorily protected classes of biological 'sex' and 'religion.' "

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McAlister gave the university a month to respond before threatening “additional action.”

"We left (the suggested policy) up there through the comment period but then took it down and said, 'You know, what we have is effective,'" Lawrence said in May. "It covers the university. We are just going to stick with what we've had all along."

So Iowa 4-H "restated" its original nondiscrimination guidance, Lawrence said.

Both Lawrence and McAlister confirmed that a lawyer from the university’s general counsel’s office called her back and said Iowa 4-H would not institute the proposed inclusion policy.

The "restated" guidelines were posted to the Iowa 4-H website sometime after that call.

Guidelines at odds with Iowa law, experts say

Written using broad language, the "restated" guidance affirms that Iowa 4-H does not discriminate on the basis of 14 characteristics, including “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”

However, it does not specifically address the issues at the heart of the spring's strife, namely transgender students' use of sex-segregated facilities.

“Accommodations needed to promote a safe and inclusive atmosphere for all Iowa youth participating in 4-H programs will be done in compliance with federal and state law on a case-by-case basis,” the four-sentence guidance reads.

The guidance goes on to lay out a detailed process for anyone to request any kind of accommodation. The ultimate decision on which accommodations to allow rests with the county council, the guidance states.

Although 4-H's financing structure doesn't place the organization clearly under federal or state nondiscrimination policies, Iowa's law is conclusive that civil rights cannot be determined on an individual basis, said Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa legal director.

"While the 4-H program should work to meet each child’s needs in an individualized way, civil rights protection under the law protect all kids," she wrote in an email. "So if a child prefers to use a separate restroom or changing room, 4-H should accommodate that.

"The program cannot force kids to use a separate space different from the rest of the kids, or into ‘gender-neutral’ options if that is not what the student prefers," Bettis wrote.

Which civil rights?

Since 4-H receives money and direction from agencies at the federal, state and local levels, it is a uniquely positioned group — and one that doesn’t fall neatly into one set of nondiscrimination policies.

Federally, “gender identity” is not a protected class.

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A spate of recent court decisions and Trump administration orders have eroded previous interpretations that sex-discrimination statutes support transgender peoples’ right to align with their gender identity in life and work.

In February 2017, the Trump administration rescinded the Department of Education guidance that instructed schools to allow transgender students to use facilities associated with their gender identity.

Three months later, President Trump’s “Religious Freedom” executive order and the 20-point memo released in tandem said: “Except in the narrowest of circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law.”

However, gender identity has been a protected class in the Iowa Civil Rights Act for a decade, meaning transgender Iowans have legal securities against discrimination in education, employment, housing and public accommodations.

Iowa State University falls under the jurisdiction of the Iowa Civil Rights Act, Kristin Johnson, the civil rights commission's executive director, has said. She didn't know if 4-H would fall under that jurisdiction as well.

“We would have to determine whether it is a public accommodation or educational institution as defined in the code,” she wrote in an email. “The case law is not clear, and there are several factors we would have to look at.”

The rejected LGBT inclusion proposal would have brought 4-H in line with Iowa's civil rights laws and the Iowa Department of Education guidance on equality for transgender students.

"The ICRC’s position is that there should be no mandatory request process," Johnson said. "Transgender students should be treated the same as cisgender students (students who identify as the gender corresponding to the sex organs with which they were born). A cisgender student does not need permission to use the facility they identify with."

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Even if the Iowa law is used, 4-H would have to provide accommodations for religious students so they aren't forced to violate their own rights, McAlister told the Register in May.

“None of the people who contacted us are discriminating against anyone,” she said. “We are just saying we need to have the proper balance so that nobody’s rights are discriminated against.”

Red tape

In addition to its broad language, the “restated” guidance lists a five-step process for parents and students to receive an accommodation.

“That’s so much bureaucracy for a kid to pee,” said Monson of Iowa Safe Schools.

That amount of red tape can be dangerous for teenagers who are just coming to terms with who they are and might not be ready to share their identity with everyone.

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“This policy is basically asking kids to out themselves and talk about who they are based solely off their genitalia, and that is just bizarre, frankly,” he said. “And it can be very hard for students who are newly identifying to talk in that way.

“This is really very simple: Go pee, and then go enjoy 4-H.”

Follow Courtney Crowder on Twitter: @courtneycare