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?


  1. I'm sure the teenager that wrote the letter above FELT as though everyone was christian, but I also went to school (K-12) in Muhlenburg Co and had lots of friends that did not go to church and that were not Christians and plenty of teachers that claimed/taught other beliefs in the classroom other than christianity. Unfortunately, it is difficult to take personal agendas of others completely out of the classroom.
    Also, if you look at statistics- 80% of the people in Muhlenburg Co. do not go to church on a given Sunday. Practicing Christians are the minority but, unfortunately, the most obnoxious are those that claim Christianity based on 'heritage' and have no real ties to living to a biblical standard.

  2. I'm not sure what you would include under "personal agendas," but I don't think that it's so difficult to convince teachers to keep their religious beliefs to themselves when they are on the clock. When they know that proselytizing will result in disciplinary action, most teachers manage quite well. I graduated from an urban high school over twenty years ago, and during my high school years I never once witnessed a teacher or administrator proselytizing during school hours. Then again, the district my school belonged to did not conduct prayers at school board meetings or allow bible distributions in fifth-grade classrooms.

    I think there's a very obvious connection here. When a school board and administrators make it clear that they will ignore judicial rulings until they are caught, they encourage some zealous teachers and staff to do the same, with predictable results.

    I'm curious as to where you ran across the statistic that eighty percent of people in the county don't attend church on a given Sunday. I've never seen stats for the county that go beyond self-identification by religious group.

  3. I am looking to see if there is other sources that would gather this statistical data. Not sure who else cares how many people attend church on the average Sunday morning other than religious researchers. Also, I'm not sure what kind of motive there would be to misrepresent that count. Especially since the researchers that I know do it for the love of research and not to please others one way or the other.

  4. Just wondering... If you believe in nothing, and believe there is no life after death, then what are you so worried about? Why do you care? If there is nothing then you should have nothing to care about.

  5. If you read my post, and the linked story about Duncan Henderson, you would know that the issues involved here include the unconstitutional endorsement of religion by school districts and the ostracizing and demonizing of students by other students and even staff. Henderson received death threats. Have you no sympathy?

    Here is the scoop: I DO care. Like many other nonbelievers, and many believers, I care about people--and our community, nation, and world--because I care about the happiness and suffering of other beings. Your implication that a person would care only in order to avoid hell is disturbing, to say the least.

    Now that I understand your version of the moral compass, I'd like to hear your take on the constitutional issues at hand. Do you think our local board of education should abide by the Coles decision? And what do you think the board's position should be on the distribution of literature by outside groups?

    Personal attacks--either on me or on atheists in general--seem like an attempt to draw attention away from the real issues.

  6. Suzanne, I think you are an amazingly strong and capable woman and I'm thrilled to be blog-buddies. I admire the fight you have taken on; it is a worthy one!

    Your efforts are so inspiring. I am proud to be your online friend!

    If I can help your efforts in some way...let me know.
    I love the letter from the young woman (Why do I think this was a women?) who fought her own good fight.

  7. Suzanne, I just looked at the FFRF website and saw their tracts. Are you buying them out of your own pocket?????
    Please email me or post on my blog! Thanks!