Bestselling romantic novelist Nicholas Sparks has rejected claims that he fostered an anti-LGBT environment at a school that he co-founded, after emails between him and a former headmaster were leaked to the Daily Beast.
The author of The Notebook and A Walk to Remember co-founded the Epiphany School of Global Studies in North Carolina in 2006. In 2014, former headmaster Saul Benjamin launched a lawsuit in which he alleged that Sparks and other members of the school board had “unapologetically marginalised, bullied, and harassed” people at the school, including Benjamin, “whose religious views and/or identities did not conform to their religiously driven, bigoted preconceptions”. The lawsuit also alleged that influential families at the school bullied and “sought to enact a ‘homo-caust’” against LGBT students, and claimed that Sparks “derisively” referred to them as “the gay club”.
It separately also claimed that Benjamin was forced out of his position as headmaster, and that Sparks had falsely suggested to members of the school community that he was mentally ill or had Alzheimer’s.
In a pretrial hearing in November 2018, a judge ruled Benjamin hadn’t shown the evidence needed to prove he had been forced out when he supported LGBT students or tried to improve racial diversity among the staff and students. However, the case will go to trial in August, when a jury will consider if Sparks defamed Benjamin and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
On 14 June, the Daily Beast published emails in which the author criticised Benjamin for “what some perceive as an agenda that strives to make homosexuality open and accepted”, and for “misplaced priorities at the school level (GLBT [sic], diversity, the beauty of other religions, as opposed to academic/curricular/global issues, Christian traditions, etc)”.
In the emails, Sparks is shown defending his decision to ban LGBT students from forming a club, writing that “not allowing them to have a club is NOT discrimination”, and pointing out: “Remember, we’ve had gay students before, many of them … [The former headmaster] handled it quietly and wonderfully … I expect you to do the same.”
He also wrote to Benjamin: “Regarding diversity, I’ve now told you half a dozen times that our lack of diversity has NOTHING to do with the school or anyone at the school. It’s not because of what we as a school has or hasn’t done. It has nothing to do with racism or vestiges of Jim Crow. It comes down to 1) Money and 2) Culture.”
After the Daily Beast article was published, Sparks described it as “not news”, and said that it “largely ignores the overwhelming evidence we have submitted to the court”.
He wrote: “I am pleased that the Court has dismissed nearly every claim against me, my Foundation and Epiphany. Very importantly, the Court has dismissed all claims of discrimination or harassment against me. While there will be a trial on a few remaining issues, I am confident that a jury will evaluate these claims fairly and decide those claims in our favour as well.” He stressed his belief that Epiphany “remains a place where students and faculty of any race, belief, religion, background or orientation should feel welcome”.
In a statement from Benjamin’s lawyers, Wigdor LLP, partner Lawrence Pearson said: “The emails written by Nicholas Sparks speak for themselves … He does not get to decide what is or isn’t ‘news’. We look forward to vindicating Mr Benjamin’s rights at trial in August.”