Friday, November 23, 2012

My Freethought Radio Interview, and a Memorable School Board Meeting

Last weekend, I was interviewed on Freethought Radio, a program hosted by the Freedom from Religion Foundation co-presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker.  We talked about the Muhlenberg County Schools' literature distribution policy, going all the way back to last fall when the FFRF convinced the board of education to end its practice of allowing members of the Gideons International to distribute bibles to fifth-graders during instructional time.  I recalled the details of my discovery that the board had, at its May 14 meeting, unanimously voted "to approve plans for collaboration and efforts to support the Gideon's [sic] organization," and my failed attempts to convince the board to prohibit all outside groups from distributing literature to students.  I explained my decision to request, along with the Western Kentucky University Secular Student Alliance, a presence at afterschool events (as long as the Gideons were permitted access), and described our experience "tabling" at Muhlenberg High School (which I also wrote about in my last post).

The Freethought Radio podcast is now available here.  I'm sorry about the hiss in the background, and I'm going to ask the FFRF tech folks if something can be done about it. 

In other news, at the Muhlenberg County Board of Education's November 12 meeting, Western Kentucky University SSA president and Muhlenberg North High School graduate Walter Petit asked the board to end its practice of opening meetings with prayer, and to close afterschool events to all outside groups.  While a portion of Petit's remarks made the evening news and the local papers, some interesting and important details of the meeting were omitted.

First, the meeting was opened with a prayer, led by board member Jerry Winters, that may have been the most sectarian and divisive prayer in board history.  The idea seemed to be to throw in the word "Christian" as often as possible, and to imply that anyone opposed to prayer at meetings could not possibly care about the children of Muhlenberg County as much as Winters.

Second, while SSA's Walter Petit was still at the podium after addressing the board, Winters stated, "If I had things my way, we wouldn't even be teaching that we come from monkeys and lizards!"  So there you have it: at a board meeting during which the importance of getting students "college ready" was frequently mentioned, a member of the board of education expressed his desire to remove the teaching of evolution from the science curriculum. 

Without missing a beat, Petit responded that Winters' statement revealed "such scientific ignorance" that he had no business serving on a board of education.  I think that the Kentucky Science Teachers Association--whose Position Statement on Evolution readers may want to check out for themselves--would agree.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Bigger Picture

One week ago, I (acting as an individual member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation) and three members of the Western Kentucky University Secular Student Alliance sat behind a table during Muhlenberg High School's Parent Night to distribute literature from the FFRF and SSA.  It was a positive experience.  School personnel were friendly.  Approximately two dozen people stopped by our table to pick up literature, ask questions, or simply chat. There were no unpleasant confrontations; in fact, several people remarked that they were glad to see us there.  Some of these people were Christians.

Currently all nonprofit groups have the opportunity to distribute literature at afterschool events in Muhlenberg County.  As I mentioned in previous posts, other districts that have considered such policies as a way to continue bible distributions have discovered  pagans, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Unitarian Universalists waiting in the wings to take advantage of the open forum.  Under such a policy, Muslims, Catholics, Buddhists, Mormons, and Scientologists, among others, must also be allowed.
Although the SSA and I have received permission to distribute in the elementary and middle schools, we are still deciding whether to proceed.  We’re honestly not comfortable having a presence at that age level.  We would prefer that the school board rescind its open forum policy and not allow any outside groups to distribute literature on school property.  We think that public schools should remain neutral on such matters.  However, if the schools continue to allow the Gideons or other religious groups in, we understand that our presence may be encouraging to secular students by showing them that they are not alone.  

The SSA and I remain firm in our conviction that the school board should end its practice of beginning school board meetings with prayer.  Such prayer—often distinctly Christian in form—is not only divisive, but unconstitutional.  The United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Coles Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education (1999) found prayer at school board meetings a violation of the Establishment Clause. 

While my last post drew some support, it also attracted much criticism from those who remain convinced that school endorsement of a specific form of Christianity is not only acceptable, but desirable.  Some are unwilling to see the difference between protected personal religious expression and religious endorsement by school officials.  The many judicial decisions striking down such endorsement point out that among its dangers are the marginalization and mistreatment of minority group members.

I am going to end with two stories that illustrate these dangers.  The first is of a teenager in Alabama who founded that state's only high school "Freethinkers Club."  Duncan Henderson first tried to establish such a club in junior high, but says the principal of the junior high prevented it.  Henderson also received death threats from fellow students.  He was finally successful when he moved on to high school because he had a principal who was not only willing to follow the law and allow the club to meet, but to serve as the club's sponsor despite considering himself a devout Christian.  The principal has a good relationship with Duncan's freethinking family (he calls them "just very nice folks") and says that he's been impressed with the quality of the club's discussions.

The second story hits closer to home.  It was sent to me by a former Muhlenberg County high school student who gave me permission to share it minus a name and some other identifying information.  I think it's important to note that this is one of many such letters I have received from former Muhlenberg County students.

I'm pretty sure we've never met, but I lived in Muhlenberg my entire life before graduating high school and moving to --- to attend ----.  I am writing just to tell you simply thank you.  I stumbled across your blog and was shocked by your efforts. Growing up and attending school there I often felt quite alienated since my parents were poor and we did not attend church.  Since I was never exposed continuously to a church environment I quickly discovered I was an atheist, before I even knew that such a concept had a name.  But, my discovery I felt was in vain since none shared my belief, let alone dare respect it.  I remember being in 11th grade and my teacher asking my class to raise their hands if they went to church, what a question I thought, this is school, you can't ask stuff like this, but with a quick glance around the room I discovered I was the only one with a hand not raised and my classmates glared on at me as if I was a demon.  The alienation and ridicule I received for first not attending church and then affirming my atheist status was unmatched.  I had teachers all throughout my schooling try to ILLEGALLY force children into believing, from reading the bible in class to religious themed schoolwork.  I felt alone in my battle to not believe.  Luckily I managed to get away from Muhlenberg and into college where I discovered an array of beliefs and respect to go along with it. I truly believe in your effort. . . . I graduated from high school not that long ago!  Please don't let anyone discourage you or try to stop you in this campaign.  I know that there were many more like me that had to simply play along until they were old enough to be out on their own but I refused; if they get to openly voice their beliefs why can't I?  Students need an environment where their beliefs can be challenged, regardless what that belief may be, it helps us grow as people and respect others that don't believe the same as us.  This was unheard when I was in school and I am sure there are people feverishly campaigning against you but like I said please continue doing what you're doing!

Don't all Muhlenberg County students deserve a safe, supportive educational environment?  And don't we want to be the kind of citizens who provide it?