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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://lostaddress.org ray

    Even if his speech was not protected by the constitution, the IFI need to stop this sort of thing. If the West keeps on down this route the next step is that we will all become exactly the same as the Muslim countries. Religion has no place in school – outside religious education classes, of course – and these groups need to worry about the important things:kids cutting classes, bullying, education on safe sex and all the things that schools and parents are supposed to worry about.

    If the Board does act on this right wing nutjob’s mails, they will be subject to a lawsuit and to numerous non-theist (and likely theist too) bloggers on the attack. Because anyone who cares about the First Amendment will be on the side of Hemant Mehta.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The url for anyone wishing to comment directly to the IFI: http://www.illinoisfamily.org/contact/.

  • TommyP

    Sleazy Christians… why am I not surprised? Reminds me of the days when I was going to Baptist grade school. They literally would try to cast Satan out of anyone expressing diverging views, or even asking questions deemed off-limits. Sleaze!

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    Remind accomodationist atheists about this whenever they worry that the outspoken atheists are “too pushy” or “too offensive.” Hemant is one of the least offensive atheists online and the religious right is trying to silence him. To many of these people, the fact that anyone is an atheist is offensive.

    Might as well be loud and upfront with your atheism, because they’re going to tell nice atheists to shut up anyway.

  • http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    What’s the hubbub? She’s simply exercising her 1st Amendment right to infringe on his 1st, 4th and 14th (and probably others) rights. The Amendments are like golf scores; a lower total is better. Besides, have you ever seen atheist math? It’s completely different than the kind that Real Americans™ use. He probably even sneaks in that foreign metric crap.

    ray “If the West keeps on down this route the next step is that we will all become exactly the same as the Muslim countries.”
    No way! They have the wrong religion. We’d have, y’know, the right one (Literalist Conservative Baptist Christianity…at least we will after we push out the Catholics. And Methodists. And the JWs. The Pentecostals are pretty heretical, too. Oh, and I can’t forget the… And the…).

  • Sarah Braasch

    This post and entire situation ties in so well with some of the recent discussions on this site.

    What is she afraid of? She’s afraid of empathy. She’s terrified of it. She expresses this explicitly in her letter. Everything she writes in her letter is so tribalistic and expresses an utter terror of the other, of anyone with views other than her own, which mimic those of her group.

    Also, this is one of the reasons why I think it is so important, so vital to keep and improve our public school system. At least her children are being exposed to other world views in a multicultural setting. Not that teachers should ever impose their own views upon their students. Which I know is not happening here. But, her kids will be exposed to the opinions and ideas of the other students. And, they will be taught to think for themselves. Another reason why I oppose vouchers and any public funding for the indoctrination of religious schools.

    At least there’s that. The last thing we want is for her to pull her kids out of school and home school them.

    Something like 75% of home schooled kids in the US are born into evangelical Christian families.

    On that note, if you haven’t seen Jesus Camp — it’s a must. Brilliant.

    On a personal note, this brings back memories of being a little JW schoolgirl in the public school system and sitting by myself in the library during the Xmas celebrations. The librarian was angry with me and to punish me for being the wrong religion forced me to take down the Xmas tree in the library and put away all the ornaments and whatnot. At that age, around 7, I was too cowed by her authority to resist, even though it made me intensely uncomfortable.

    Do you think this woman would write angry letters about this librarian? Guessing no.

  • valdemar

    King Aardvark, you’re right. Atheists who want to make nice with these bigots are letting the side down. Spare us from fair weather friends and summer soldiers.

  • Justin

    How dare you, here in America, try to get a man fired for expressing his views?

    Of course, the IFI claims this isn’t the goal; but what else could be the intended effect of “warning” parents that Mr. Mehta is an atheist?

    How dare you suggest that speech protected by the First Amendment makes him any less fit as a teacher or as a role model?

    It’s probably safe to assume that the IFI believes that any atheist can’t be a good role model.

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  • http://www.atheistrev.com vjack

    I hear what you’re saying about how no teacher should be punished for expressing themselves outside of work on their personal time, and I agree completely. Unfortunately, I am in the middle of finding out the hard way that this simply isn’t reality. I really can’t say more until the situation I am in is over, but I’m finding that “free speech” is not something many employers take seriously.

  • http://obnoxiousbitch.com Rox1SMF

    Vjack that sucks. I’ve had more than one occasion to bump heads with “authorities” of one form or another due to my being bold enough to exercise my right to free speech, but this attacking of a TEACHER simply because he’s an atheist (not even that he’s “preached” in class, for fuck’s sake) is more reason than ever for us to support each other… even if some of us have to do it from the closet for the time being.

    Atheism is only one of the subjects about which my personal views could be considered controversial to most, and downright offensive to some. I don’t mind saying things – and even employing a bit of hyperbole to make my points – because someone’s got to, and there are still too many people who CAN’T because it’s a danger to them or their livelihood. I have the luxury of living in a place that’s liberal AND where a lot of people make their living testing the boundaries of free expression. That being the case, perhaps it’s only fitting that I raise enough of a stink it makes up for all those silenced voices.

  • http://no2religion.blogspot.com no2religion

    The only good thing about the IFI is they are mainly concerned with Illinois, not to say there aren’t other organizations like the IFI in other states.

    @vjack – Sorry to hear you are going through an ordeal. I am sure once you can talk about it you will have strong and significant backing from this community.

    Unfortunately, for those of us who work in education, particularly teachers, we are often targets of what we do out of work, just do a search for: “teacher fired for myspace page” or “teacher fired for facebook page”.

  • http://theinfinityprogram.com Kevin

    My favorite part about this story is how Ms. Higgins is passive-aggressively going about trying to get Mr. Mehta fired so that she has the benefit of plausible deniability, as demonstrated in the article “Laurie Higgins of the Illinois Family Institute Issues an Open Letter to Me.”

  • Sammie

    Yeah, what happens next is that the IFI will claim that THEY and Christianity are being persecuted so it must be the end times JUST like their bible said! *rolls eyes* I think they are just running around TRYING to make the apocalypse happen themselves. You watch! The IFI is going to claim persecution because they are religious. Poor things. *coughcoughbullshitcough*

    The Texas Governor Rick Perry just ordered the teachers in his state to begin teaching the Christian Bible in the classroom there. http://tinyurl.com/n7bw3n

  • trikepilot

    I feel for the teacher in the story above. One of the faults of being “out” as an atheist is the workplace repercussions especially in a religious culture where any dissent is often challenged. I can’t help but wonder if my career advancement would stop if I were to come out in the Mormon dominated workplace where I’m currently employed. I wish the best to Hemant.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    vjack: My sympathies as well. I don’t know if it’s the situation for you, but one of the problems with working in America is that very many businesses don’t need a reason at all to fire you (this doesn’t apply to teachers, though). There’s no requirement on the business owner to state a reason for your dismissal, so the actual reason can easily be speech in your own time.

    It’s going to take a lot of work to reverse this. The Republicans have done a good job at improving the rights of business owners at the expense of employees, and then framing it as fighting for the “little guy” (ie. the small business owner, as opposed to the CEO of a big business. He’s little by their standards). Fixing this trend isn’t on the agenda of the Democratic Party at all. Only chance is a few high-profile cases, but I don’t really see that happening. Anyone who has to work for a small business isn’t likely to make a high-profile case, so it would have to be an extreme situation – ie. someone fired for being Christian.

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  • Bletchley Park

    I’m a physician in my community, and I wouldn’t dare come out as an atheist. This is yet another harm of religion–may of its followers will use their large numbers and fear mongering to entice a mob response. Remember the thugs coming for Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird? An Atticus is now being harrassed for doing absolutely nothing to this woman, the members of her club, or the students he teaches.

    Hitchens’ book title is not hyperbole–”…Religion Poisons Everything”.

  • DamienSansBlog

    I hate to have to say it, but Higgins has a legitimate complaint (as in “exactly one”): an e-mail list to subscribers really isn’t the same thing as an official press release, even if Mr. Mehta “can’t tell the difference”. And if you want to be technical — which the lawyers will, if it comes to anything serious — she really didn’t suggest he be…”fired”, per se. She merely suggested “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.”

    With respect to Ebon, it also seems that her foaming and flailing is more triggered by Mehta’s “scandalous” ideas about sexuality, than his “scandalous” ideas about spirituality. On her website, she only mentions his atheism in connection to his “promotion” of homosexuality. I’m not sure it’s religion at the heart of this argument.

    Am I supporting her? No. She doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish people’s public and private lives, and she clearly has no ability to respond appropriately to personal criticism. It doesn’t even look like she knows what a blog is! She’s done exactly the stupidest possible thing at every single point. But we have to be careful not to misunderstand what kind of stupidity it is.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Ms Higgins’ bio on the IFI website makes her agenda crystal clear (and it appears that promoting Judeo-Christian family values in public education is exactly the heart of the matter). I would also argue that her methods and verbiage betray a legal and media savvy. From the website it also appears that IFI has a relationship with the ADF (Alliance Defense Fund):

    Laurie Higgins
    DSA Director

    Prior to working for the Illinois Family Institute (IFI), Laurie worked full-time for eight years in the writing center of Deerfield High School, a public high school located in a Chicago suburb.

    Laurie is the Director of the Division of School Advocacy (DSA) for IFI. The newly established Division of School Advocacy is committed to assisting Illinois residents address issues related to the breakdown of Judeo-Christian family values and community standards in public education.

    Laurie’s cultural commentaries have been carried on a number of pro-family websites including Champion News, Culture Campaign, Americans for Truth, and Laigle’s Forum.

    Laurie has been interviewed by Donna Hearne on Bott Radio Network’s Encounter program, Jon Gauger and Mark Elfstrand for Moody Radio, Sandy Rios for The Sandy Rios Show, Pete Chagnon for OneNewsNow, Dr. Jody Hice for Let Freedom Ring, Charlie Butts for the USA Radio Network, and Matt Hadrow for CNS News.

    Laurie and her husband of 35 years are the parents of four adult children.

    Laurie has a Bachelor’s degree in English from Northwestern University.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I suggest you read this post by Ms Higgins on IFI’s website regarding the new CEO of Chicago Public Schools. It really leaves little else to be said.

    http://www.illinoisfamily.org/dsa/contentview.asp?c=34242

  • Thumpalumpacus

    With respect to Ebon, it also seems that her foaming and flailing is more triggered by Mehta’s “scandalous” ideas about sexuality, than his “scandalous” ideas about spirituality. On her website, she only mentions his atheism in connection to his “promotion” of homosexuality. I’m not sure it’s religion at the heart of this argument.

    Admittedly we can neither know the source of her bigotry, but it seems to me that homophobes arrive at their particular bigotry through faith, and not the other way around. That would seem to make religion the substrate here, to my mind.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    I caught this the other day, and meant to say something:

    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?! (Ebonmuse)

    Right on, I am with you all the way here, and I think the way you offer to support Hemant is commendable. You’re free to denounce it as concern trolling of course, but it’s stuff like that which really makes atheists shine, IMO. Outshining hate with love never fails.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    I hope Hemant comes through this okay. Earlier this year, someone complained about another atheist blogger/teacher. He was given a choice: shut down your blog, or lose your job. He shut down his blog, of course – he has a wife and family to support. And, the atheosphere lost a fine voice.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Who was that, chaplain? I don’t recall hearing about this.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Ebon: I’ll email you. I don’t want to say too much publicly, because I don’t want to cause more trouble for the guy. It’s not my place to “out” him, so to speak.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I know who he is too.

  • deconversion

    Their site is displaying this message “HTTP/1.1 New Session Failed” Did they get overwhelmed by comments?

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