There’s been an interesting development in a story a blogged about earlier, the one about the Oklahoma teen who was kicked off the girls’ basketball team for refusing to join in team prayer, and whose father was assaulted, falsely accused of assault and later found not guilty. Now the parents have filed a civil suit against 16 defendants.
A conspiracy amongst Hardesty School and several Texas County governments is alleged in a million dollar First Amendment Civil Rights lawsuit filed in Federal Court Friday.
The plaintiffs, Chester and Nadia Smalkowski of Hardesty, and American Atheists, Inc., a Texas Non-Profit Corporation, are suing 16 defendants for damages due to a number of Civil Rights violations incurred after the Smalkowskis’ daughter was allegedly kicked off Hardesty’s basketball team, suspended from school and later threatened for refusing to say the Lord’s Prayer before a game.
… “We are asking for a 1983 Civil Rights Violation, and that has nothing to do with the year, that comes from Title 42 of the United States Code, Section 1983,” [the Smalkowski’s attorney, Richard] Rice said. “It’s the civil rights violation that says under color of law you have deprived somebody of their civil rights.
“We are maintaining that there was a conspiracy between a number of governmental employees from the school district to the town of Hardesty to the Sheriff’s Department to the District Attorney’s Office and the violation is based upon the first amendment right that they have not to pray in school and we believe that the daughter was kicked off the basketball team because she refused to pray in school.
“We are now filing a federal law suit because it’s a federal violation.
“I have the Right to pray, believe in God, attend church without fear of reprisal from any branch of any government here in America,” Rice said.
“I have the Right to not pray, to not believe in God, or to not attend church without fear of reprisal from any branch of any government here in America,” [Kentucky Attorney Edwin] Kagin said.
I have to applaud the family for standing up for themselves and their daughter, when it would have been easier to breath a sigh of relief and quietly leave town (or the state) after the the “not guilty” verdict on the bogus misdemeanor. I’m not sure that I’d have blamed them for making that choice, because I’d probably have to weigh the possibility of putting my family through worse than they’d already been through, especially where my kid is concerned. On the other hand, I’d be more concerned about what kind of message a quiet retreat would give my child about standing up for his or her rights, and for those who’ll come after them.
What’s most interesting is the religious make-up of the Smalkowski’s legal team. Rice is a Southern Baptist, while Kagin is National Legal Director for American Atheists. And both of them say the same thing: “I have a right to not pray, to not believe in God, or to not attend church without fear of reprisal from any branch of government here in America.” That doesn’t surprise me in Kagin’s case, but I imagine Rice’s identical statement places him in the minority within the Southern Baptist Convention.
If nothing else, perhaps cases like this will help clarify the battle lines on an issue like this. I think the argument should be made that this isn’t about voluntary, student-led prayer in public schools. The line was crossed in this case when the Smalkowski’s daughter faced consequences for refusing to participate and school officials got involved by siding against the Smalkowski family. If the team prayer had been voluntary, student-led, and there were no consequences for choosing not to participate, there might not have been a case.
But how far does the right not to pray go, and what does it require? Is the onus upon the students choosing not to participate? If the voluntary, student-led prayer is allowed, then the non-participating students have two options: stay and just don’t listen, or leave the room until the prayer is finished. I know from experience that neither option is all that comfortable for the non-participating students, in part because both options make them stand out for their non-participation. And the second option almost seems like the classroom, and the even the school itself, belongs less to them than it does to the religious majority.
Should they have to leave the room or sit there and “not listen”? The only other option would be not to allow the prayer at all, and that would likely incense the religious majority, which could mean more negative consequences for those in the religious minority, if they are identified as such and associated with the prohibition in the minds of the religious minority. You only have to look at the what happened to the Dobrich to see that.
In a way, the stories of both families are kind of a reflection of the situation faced by religious minorities (including the non-religious) right about now. Just like with the school situation, if America is a “Christian nation,” what’s the status of non-christians and non-believers? To what degree is this our country too? Or does it primarily belong to the religious majority? And does that mean that in order to keep some semblance of peace, the rest of us must “not look” and “not listen”? And as religion becomes more and more a part of public life, and increasingly informs policy, what does that mean for the citizenship of the non-religious and religious minorities?
There probably aren’t going to be any answers anytime soon. If anything the battle signified in the Smalkowski and Dobrich cases will heat up even more before it dies down, if the latest case in West Virginia — where a school is fighting to keep a portrait of Jesus on the wall outside the principal’s office — is any indication.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the West Virginia American Civil Liberties Union sued in federal court in June, saying the painting, “Head of Christ,” sends the message that the school endorses Christianity as its official religion.
The painting, which depicts Jesus in sepia tones on a large canvas and hangs outside the principal’s office, has been at the school for 37 years. A guidance counselor left it behind upon retirement.
Residents at the meeting said the issue has unified the community.
… “It was just a matter of time that someone came along and tried to take away our freedom,” said Eddy Currey, a 1985 Bridgeport High graduate.
… The Christian Freedom Fund, established to pay the school board’s legal fees, raised most of the money in less than two weeks. Bridgeport High students raised an additional $6,700.
“The ACLU is saying they have the right to come in and find a few people who disagree with the majority and use them to overtake the majority,” said Dennis Swindle, a local minister whose daughter attends the school. “All we’re saying is, ‘not without a fight.”‘
Not without a fight indeed. For those of us in the minority — religious and non-religious — more and more often the question will probably be when to fight, and when to either “just not listen” or quietly leave.