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?