“…if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom…” – Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
Maddi Runkles, an 18-year-old high school student with a 4.0 grade average, was not allowed to attend the graduation ceremony with her class in Hagerstown, Maryland, because she is pregnant.
Technically, according to a statement to parents from Heritage Academy Principal David R. Hobbs, Runkles was not permitted to attend “not because she is pregnant but because she was immoral. … The best way to love her right now is to hold her accountable for her morality that began this situation.”
The Washington Post writes (May 24), that “[Runkles] found out she was pregnant in January and informed the school, where her father was then a board member, in February. Initially the school told Runkles that she would be suspended and removed from her role as student council president and would have to finish the rest of the school year at home.
“After the family appealed, Heritage said it would allow Runkles to finish the school year with her 14 classmates but she would not be able to walk with the other seniors to receive her diploma at graduation. The family believes that the decision is unfair and that she is being punished more harshly than others who have broken the rules.”
There are obvious comparisons between Runkles and Hester Prynne from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.
– Both Runkles and Prynne believe in fundamental Christian principles and live in communities that reflect those principles.
In Prynne’s Puritan society, that code is reinforced not only by the minister in the local church but socially, as well. Runkles describes herself as “a practicing born-again Christian.”
– Both strayed from societal codes by engaging in illicit sex.
As a married woman, Prynne engaged in adultery. Runkles engaged in premarital sex, expressly forbidden by the Heritage school code; a code which Runkles herself signed.
“The breach of a standard of abstinence is a grievous choice,” Principal Hobbs said in an interview. “Maddi made a grievous choice. We do believe in forgiveness, but forgiveness does not mean there’s no accountability.”
– Both Prynne and Runkles kept secret from their communities the identity of the fathers. And both suffered public humiliation for their actions.
However, Runkles believes she is being treated unfairly.
“It’s because I’m pregnant and you can see the results of my mistake,” Runkles said. “There have been kids who have broken the student code and they could have hurt people or even gone to jail, and they only received an in-school suspension and they’re allowed to walk [participate in graduation] this year. The school is worried about its reputation, but I think they’re missing out on an incredible opportunity to set an example for the pro-life community and Christian schools about how to treat guys and girls like me.”
As reported by The Post, “ ‘It’s a bad decision,’ [by Heritage] said Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life. ‘I was horrified when I learned that they wouldn’t let her walk at graduation. Usually when a woman is facing an unwanted pregnancy, especially a young woman, there is a sense of shame that comes into play and can have an impact on her decision and often does. … What she needs is support, and what the school is doing is really the opposite of that,’ she said. ‘It’s the antithesis of what it means to be Christian.’ ”
“The blowback,” The Post continues, “led Runkles’s parents to pull Maddi and her 9th-grade brother out of the school for the remainder of the year. Her father, Scott Runkles, has resigned from the school’s board and her brother will transfer to another Christian school in the fall.
“…Runkles says she is grateful for the support from her family and the Baptist church she belongs to in Frederick.”
The New York Times reported (May 20), that “Rick Kempton, chairman of the board of the Association of Christian Schools International, which represents about 3,000 schools in the United States and many others overseas, [said] ‘There’s a biblical term that many Christian schools use, and it is the whole idea of grace: What would Jesus do?
“ ‘She’s making the right choice [in keeping her baby],’ Kempton said. ‘But you don’t want to create a celebration that makes other young ladies feel like, ‘Well, that seems like a pretty good option.’ ”
Kempton brings up a good question: What would Jesus do?
The answer to that question is as old as the Gospel of John, which details how the Pharisees – strict Jewish traditionalists – tried to discredit the influence of Jesus of Nazareth by bringing forth a woman charged with adultery. The Jewish clerics reminded him that, under Mosaic Law, adultery was punishable by stoning. The group challenged the Teacher by asking how he would respond.
Jesus thought for a moment, then replied, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.”
Moved by their own consciences, the people surrounding the woman walk away.
Alone with the woman, Jesus asked who her accusers were.
“No man, Lord,” she replied
Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn thee; go and sin no more.”
Last August, Pope Francis implored, “The world needs forgiveness; too many people are caught up in resentment and harbor hatred because they are incapable of forgiving. They ruin their own lives and the lives of those around them rather than finding the joy of serenity and peace.”