I know I promised to move on from Barack Obama’s speech on Dems and religion from earlier this week, but there’s something that I think still bears discussion; based a couple of stories that came to my attention in the days since the speech, and another story that they brought back to mind. In particular I want to look at these stories in light of Obama’s words on prayer in schools and to what degree it does or doesn’t constitute state establishment or endorsement of a religion. Specifically, I want to look at what it what it can establish in terms of the kind of environment students who don’t belong to the majority faith have to put up with.
First. what Obama said:
Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation – context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase “under God.” I didn’t. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats.
Perhaps he’s right. Not every mention of god, or every prayer uttered in public school should be considered a threat. But, even at the current level of vigilance re: the separation of church & state it can be a threat, particularly to those students who do not share the majority faith and thus opt not to participate.
In other words, whether there should be or not, there are consequences for not participating, as the following stories lay out in pretty clear detail. For some reason, amid all the ballyhoo about “persecuted” christians, these stories rarely ever make major news.
The first is one that landed in my inbox this morning, about a Jewish family forced to move because of religious hostility.
A large Delaware school district promoted Christianity so aggressively that a Jewish family felt it necessary to move to Wilmington, two hours away, because they feared retaliation for filing a lawsuit. The religion (if any) of a second family in the lawsuit is not known, because they’re suing as Jane and John Doe; they also fear retaliation. Both families are asking relief from “state-sponsored religion.”
… Among numerous specific examples in the complaint was what happened at plaintiff Samantha Dobrich’s graduation in 2004 from the district’s high school. She was the only Jewish student in her graduating class. The complaint relates that local pastor, Jerry Fike, in his invocation, followed requests for “our heavenly Father’s” guidance for the graduates with:
I also pray for one specific student, that You be with her and guide her in the path that You have for her. And we ask all these things in Jesus’ name.
… On the evening in August 2004 when the board was to announce its new policy, hundreds of people turned out for the meetng. The Dobrich family and Jane Doe felt intimidated and asked a state trooper to escort them.
The complaint recounts that the raucous crowd applauded the board’s opening prayer and then, when sixth-grader Alexander Dobrich stood up to read a statement, yelled at him: “take your yarmulke off!” His statement, read by Samantha, confided “I feel bad when kids in my class call me Jew boy.”
… A former board member suggested that Mona Dobrich might “disappear” like Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the atheist whose Supreme Court case resulted in ending organized school prayer. O’Hair disappeared in 1995 and her dismembered body was found six years later.
… Classmates accused Alex Dobrich of “killing Christ” and he became fearful about wearing his yarmulke, the complaint recounts. He took it off whenever he saw a police officer, fearing that the officer might see it and pull over his mother’s car. When the family went grocery shopping, the complaint says, “Alexander would remove the pin holding his yarmulke on his head for fear that someone would grab it and rip out some of his hair.”
The Dobriches refinanced their home so that Mona and Alexander could move to Wilmington, away from a situation that had become untenable, according to the complaint; Marco stayed behind because of his job, .
That story reminded me of another one I mentioned briefly in last week’s QueerlyKos round up after reading it on Pharyngula. In fact, I mentioned it so briefly that afterwards I felt sure a lot of people probably missed the story of a student who was kicked off a high school sports team for refusing to participate in team prayer, and what happened to her family in the aftermath.
The Smalkowski case attracted national attention after Nicole Smalkowski was kicked off of the girls’ basketball team after refusing to stand in a circle with her teammates on the gymnasium floor of the Hardesty public High School and recite the “Lord’s Prayer.” After school officials learned that she and her family were Atheists, lies were created about her as grounds to take her off of the team.
When her father Chuck discovered conclusively that public school and law enforcement officials had lied to him about his 15 year old daughter, he and Nicole and her mother Nadia went to the home of principal Lloyd Buckley to attempt to discuss the matter with him. Outside of his front fence, the principal struck Chuck, who blocked the blow. Both men fell to the ground and Buckley sustained minor injuries, the provable origins of which were strikingly contrary to his under oath trial testimony. Buckley then took out misdemeanor criminal assault charges against Chuck. After Smalkowski rejected the offer to drop the charges if he and his Atheist family left the state, the charges were raised to a felony. Chuck called American Atheists for help.
About.Com’s Agnosticism/Atheism guide offers a pretty thorough summary of the affair, including a link to Chuck Smalkowski’s personal account of how virtually an entire small community turned on the family for not sharing the majority faith, nor having the decency to at least go through the motions.
Hardesty has labeled us as devil worshippers. I assure you if we do not believe in bearded white men flying in the heavens with wings we surely do not believe in a black man in the ground with horns and a pointed tail.
… Is it any wonder that with this manipulative rhetoric that teachers with students present told my daughter Nicole this is a Christian country and if you don?t like it get out! These teachers have since left Hardesty. Teachers watched as students said she was gay because she voted for Kerry, only homosexuals vote for Kerry, we are Christian we vote for Bush. They persecuted my daughter. They called her a half-breed. Made fun of northerners and Yankees. Teachers said they hated her. Having other students follow her around to catch her on the littlest infraction. No teacher ever tried to enlighten these misguided children. Instead the school encouraged more of the same. So those paid to educate our children instead used their position to persecute my daughter. Do you really think the other children benefited being use by teachers in this way? Taught to prejudge and single out those that are different. Hardesty School should be proud. It has never stopped to this day. The school board believes it can do anything. I think not.
School is for teaching not preaching. To supply our children with the tools and knowledge, not the seed of hate and divisiveness. My greatest gift to my children is that of a future of promise of a better and free tomorrow. Not hindered by the shackles of fear.
Smalkowski was, by the way, ultimately found not guilty of the assault charges trumped up against him.
These two stories put me in mind of Tempest Smith, a Wiccan girl who was driven to suicide by her classmate’s taunting and harassing her because of her religion, and whose story I blogged about a while back. The original article about Tempest’s suicide doesn’t seem to be available anymore, but this one offers all the basic details.
Denessa [Smith, Tempest's mother] remembers the last “I love you” from Tempest, the night before the 12-year-old tied a scarf around her neck and hung herself from her bunk bed on February 20.
Tempest’s journal, found under her bed after her Feb. 20 suicide, shed light on the harassment she endured from classmates who teased her for her shy demeanor, gothic-style clothes and interest in the Wiccan religion.
… Denessa said the torment began in second grade and escalated in middle school, when Tempest recorded her harassment, memories and crushes in a journal given to her by her mother.
Tempest wrote in her last journal entry on Jan. 29, that classmates were surrounding her and singing Bible hymns, “Now people aren’t saying Jesus luvs U. They’re singing it.” In her poetry she asked “Will I ever have friends again?”
Denessa said Tempest’s interest in Wicca added to the persecution from classmates, which went uncorrected by school officials.
And that’s without even getting into the whether student’s should be protected not just from harassment based on their religious beliefs or practices, but also from harassment based on their sexual orientation (which religious conservatives argue would limit their freedom of religious speech).
I should say here, and perhaps should have said sooner, that I’m not laying out these stories in order to suggest that Obama or religious progressives would approve of what happened in any of these cases, or that the same wouldn’t want to prevent these kinds of stories from happening.
I’ll even allow that Obama may not have been calling for progressives and Dems to ease up on their vigilance regarding the separation of church and state. (He did, after all, assert that to conservative religious leaders that the separation of church and state was non-negotiable.) But to some degree backing off on issues like prayer in schools at least seems like and could even be read as a strategic retreat of sorts, and in this case one that leaves people like the Dobrich, Smalkowski, and Smith families without much cover when situations like these do arise.
If anything, following Obama’s advice means that there needs to be even more vigilance in these regards. If there’s going to be school prayer then it stands to reason it’s going to cleave pretty closely to the faith of of the overwhelming majority in the various locales where it’s practiced. (Since, as I’ve heard said, making it more “inclusive” might also be seen as watering it down to the point of irrelevance.) Even with the current level of vigilance, students and families in some places can face damaging consequences for not conforming to the majority faith. Even the suggestion of decreased vigilance or standing down on the issue probably opens the door to at least some increase in families an individuals facing consequences for religious non-conformity in their communities.
I’d have to suggest that if religion is now going to be welcomed into the public square and even into public school classrooms by both Republicans and Democrats, then there needs to increased vigilance and attention paid to the prevention of stories like those above. And it’s going to take more than just people like me doing it (because as I non-believer I’m probably and a gay an I’m probably going to be somewhat suspect).
So, I’d like to suggest that — as religion, specifically in this case christianity, takes a more prominent place in public life an— that they pay attention to stories like these and work on stopping them before they reach the point where the damage is already done, as happened in these three stories.
And I’d like to offer a bit of appropriate advice from a non-majority faith:
An’ it harm none, Do what ye will.