In other news, I--your friendly neighborhood atheist--will soon be appearing at some of Muhlenberg County's public schools. Specifically, I will be distributing literature from the Freedom from Religion Foundation at school-sponsored events. This is the somewhat prolonged outcome of my accidental discovery this spring that the Gideons, booted from Muhlenberg County classrooms in 2011, were about to be allowed back into the schools (at afterschool events instead of during class time). The complete history of my involvement is here, here, and here.
This is the email that I sent to school principals on October 15:
I am writing to request permission to distribute literature at [school name] during upcoming afterschool events. I have been informed by Superintendent Dale Todd that any nonprofit organization may distribute literature at reading nights, open houses, and other official afterschool functions. I am a local member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit group dedicated to the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state and to educating the public on matters relating to nontheism.
Please send me a list of the remaining events/dates during this school year that are available for this purpose. I intend to distribute the Freedom from Religion Foundation publications Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children—a fun book that allows children of all ages to explore myths like Santa Claus and compare them with ideas like the existence of God—and Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. I will also be handing out bookmarks and "nontracts" promoting nontheism. The links that follow provide more information on these publications.
Thanks in advance for your assistance. I look forward to hearing from you.
Sincerely,The request was granted by all of the principals who received it, and depending on the school, I was either assigned an upcoming event or given a choice of events to attend. (One middle school principal said I would have to wait until next fall's open house, as his school didn't have any other suitable events this year.)
A separate request to distribute literature, submitted by Western Kentucky University's Secular Student Alliance, was also granted.
I want to commend the school principals and the superintendent for making good on the school board's claim that when it voted to "approve plans for collaboration and efforts to support the Gideons [sic] organization" at the May 14 board meeting, it was actually creating a limited open forum that would allow any nonprofit group to distribute literature at afterschool functions.
As anyone who regularly follows these types of stories can tell you, this is not how things usually turn out. Many school districts maintain longstanding, privileged arrangements with the Gideons or other evangelical groups until someone complains; then officials say that, silly people, anyone can distribute literature, while crossing their fingers (or praying) that no groups representing viewpoints other than their own actually take them up on the offer. As I noted in an earlier post, two North Carolina school boards decided to can literature distributions altogether after local residents tested so-called "open" policies by asking to distribute pagan literature.
If local residents are unhappy about my, or the Secular Student Alliance's, appearances at Muhlenberg County school functions, they can ask the board to craft a policy that prohibits all outside groups from distributing literature at school events. School districts are in no way required by law to establish limited open forums.
While the Muhlenberg County school board has made much progress in complying with the law as it pertains to religion in the schools, it still has one practice to address. The board's tradition of beginning school board meetings with prayer is in direct conflict with the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals' ruling in Coles Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education (1999), which found the practice to be a violation of the Establishment Clause. As Kentucky is in the Sixth Circuit, that decision is considered binding. Neither asking a student to lead the prayer, nor reminding those in attendance that the prayer is voluntary, makes the practice permissible.
I am so grateful for those friends and acquaintances--some of them Christians--who support my involvement with this issue. And to my new atheist, agnostic, and freethinking friends in Muhlenberg and surrounding counties: your presence strengthens me.
I am switching to moderated comments for this blog--at least for the time being. This means that I will be reviewing comments before they are posted. I am making this change because a few recent comments, which I have deleted, crossed a very obvious line of decency.