Christians Persecute Atheist Teacher

The next time you hear Christians complaining about being persecuted in America, remember this story.

You probably know Hemant Mehta, author of the blog Friendly Atheist. What you may not know, and what I didn’t know, is that by day he’s a math teacher at a public high school in Illinois. And it seems that a right-wing Christian group, outraged by the thought of an atheist being a teacher and potentially a role model, is now trying to get him fired.

You can read the story in Hemant’s own words in three posts, Why the Illinois Family Institute Is Angry With Me, Illinois Family Institute Goes After Me Again, and most recently, Laurie Higgins of the Illinois Family Institute Issues an Open Letter to Me.

Hemant does a superb job of telling the story himself, but the summary is that he outraged the Illinois Family Institute, a gay-bashing religious right group, by writing a blog post sarcastically criticizing a “warning” they issued about same-sex couples kissing in public. The IFI was terrified that – gasp! – young, impressionable children might see gays and lesbians engaging in acts of affection!

In response, the IFI’s director, Laurie Higgins, sent a letter to Hemant’s school board to insinuate that he should be fired for being an atheist:

…He, of course, has a First Amendment right to write whatever he pleases on his blog “The Friendly Atheist” during his free time, but it’s unfortunate that a role model for students would write some of the things he writes.

When this failed to produce the desired effect, Higgins then sent letters to parents in Hemant’s district, suggesting that they should be horrified by an atheist teacher and should demand that their children be removed from his class:

…as I mentioned in my earlier article, parents have the right not to have him as a teacher and a role model for their children. I want to be very clear about what I’m suggesting: I am suggesting that parents who have serious concerns about Mr. Mehta’s potential influence on their children’s beliefs politely insist that their children be placed in another teacher’s class.

The IFI’s fearmongering follows the usual religious right smear-job tactics: dig around for anything controversial that can be linked to the person they’re attacking – especially anything having to do with sex, which the Christianists are obsessed with to the point of paralysis – and then describe it to make it sound as upsetting to mainstream sensibilities as possible. Gasp! Another poster on Hemant’s blog answered an e-mail from someone who practices polyamory! Gasp! Hemant linked to the “obscene column” of “homosexual activist” Dan Savage! Heavens, won’t someone please think of the children?!

Notably, not even Higgins has claimed that Hemant has said or done anything in the classroom to promote atheism to his students. Her sole concern is that he might be a good teacher, such that students will find him inspiring and look up to him, will then Google his name, find out he’s an atheist, and be drawn to atheism themselves! (Really. I’m not kidding. That’s actually what they say.)

I’ve heard nothing to indicate that Hemant’s job is in jeopardy, but if the school board does take any kind of retaliatory action against him, he would have a very strong legal case for religious discrimination. I’ll post an update if I hear anything more on that front, and I’d gladly help raise money in his defense.

In the meantime, to Laurie Higgins and the IFI: shame on you. How dare you, here in America, try to get a man fired for expressing his views? How dare you suggest that speech protected by the First Amendment makes him any less fit as a teacher or as a role model? You should be ashamed for such a sleazy and contemptible attack on a good American citizen who’s serving his community by teaching its children.

You have no right to demand that students in public schools only be exposed to opinions that are exactly the same as their parents’. That is a foolish, reprehensible and ignorant expectation. The whole point of education is to expose kids to new ideas. And when was the last time you complained about a religious teacher expressing their views? Have you ever issued press releases trying to frighten parents into pulling their children out of some class because the teacher is a Christian or a Jew? Have you ever written to the school board to complain because a teacher wears a crucifix in class? Hemant doesn’t even so much as wear an atheist pin!

No teacher, atheist or theist, should proselytize their students in class (although religious ones too often do). The First Amendment requires that public institutions be secular and religiously neutral. But what constitutionally-protected opinions a teacher holds and expresses on their own time, that’s their business. The IFI, a gang of small-minded bigots if ever I saw one, thinks they have the right to close down the circle of opinions to only the ones that they approve of. It’s too bad for them that they live in America, a nation founded on precisely the opposite ideal.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.