Fear and Trembling in Mississippi

You’ve probably heard of Constance McMillen, a lesbian student at a Mississippi high school who wanted to bring her girlfriend as her date to her senior prom this year. The school officials, not even attempting to disguise their bigotry, refused to grant permission – and then canceled the entire prom rather than face a discrimination lawsuit which they’d be certain to lose. (In fact McMillen and her family did bring a suit, and the judge did rule that she had been discriminated against, but he held that it wasn’t in his power to force the school to hold a prom.)

In a brilliant move, the American Humanist Association responded by offering to hold a private, LGBT-friendly prom for Constance’s school in which everyone would be welcome, regardless of sexual orientation. This was made possible by a $20,000 grant from Todd Stiefel, an atheist philanthropist who serves on the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America.

As I said, this was a brilliant move. Not only does it reaffirm that atheists and secular humanists support the civil rights of LGBT people, it shows the students at Constance’s high school that, after their bigoted school board was prepared to deny them a prom, it was a group of nonbelievers who made it possible after all. It was clearly an excellent idea, winners all around – and everyone agreed, it seems, except the Mississippi ACLU.

To avoid further controversy, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi has rejected a $20,000 gift intended to underwrite an alternate prom replacing one canceled by a local school district after a lesbian student demanded that she be allowed to attend with her girlfriend.

…”Although we support and understand organizations like yours, the majority of Mississippians tremble in terror at the word ‘atheist,’” Jennifer Carr, the fund-raiser for the A.C.L.U of Mississippi, wrote in an e-mail message to Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the humanist group.

…Ms. Carr wrote to Mr. Speckhardt: “Our staff has been talking a lot about your donation offer and have found ourselves in a bit of a conflict. We have fears that your organization sponsoring the prom could stir up even more controversy.”

Obligatory snark: The ACLU – not afraid to defend the free speech rights of Nazis, but too scared to take money from a bunch of atheists!

But I’m being unfair, because this isn’t where the story ends. First, the ACLU didn’t actually have the authority to decline the AHA’s gift, because a different group, the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition, is organizing the private prom. Second, it appears that this message didn’t represent the sentiments of the ACLU as a whole, because they swiftly apologized and announced that they had no objection to the gift. This is a much better decision, and I command the ACLU and accept their apology with no hard feelings. I assume the AHA will do likewise.

Even so, this response says something about how atheists are still looked down upon. Even the ACLU – a group whose purpose is to defend the civil liberties of every American, a group that’s more than willing to defend gays and lesbians even though that minority causes no small amount of trembling among Mississippi voters – even their first response was to turn down money from atheists, lest they be tainted by their association with us.

Of course, in a state as conservative-dominated as Mississippi, this may be less of a surprise than it would be elsewhere. Still, it shows how much progress we have left to make in terms of winning public acceptance. And the best way to achieve this is to make a splash, to bring light into the darkest of places – which means that Mississippi is one of the best places to start!

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://toomanytribbles.blogspot.com/ toomanytribbles
  • Bob Carlson

    You meant commend where you wrote “command.”

    I wonder how the response might have differed if Mr. Stiefel had been a naturalistic, rather than atheistic, philanthropist given that naturalism is a worldview rather than simply an expression of religious disbelief.

  • Katie M

    @ tribbles-I really hope that isn’t true :(

  • Monkfishy

    You are so right about Mississippi being a good place to start with acceptance of non-theism. I recently complained to a local MS radio station about religious advertising on their station. Although it is airtime bought and aired as advertising, the ad is actually a sermon. This is part of the response I received from the station’s General Manager, after telling me they’d never had any other complaints about such advertising:

    Have a great Easter week and (sic) we all pause and remember that Jesus died for us all and rose again.

    My response to her was simply, “Please remember that we don’t all share that belief.”

    However, as both an atheist and lesbian in Mississippi, I can understand the ACLU’s reluctance to add the horror of atheism to the abomination of homosexuality. While it might have made a good political statement, it would also have made Ms. McMillen’s life much more difficult.

  • Samuel Skinner

    “Have a great Easter week and (sic) we all pause and remember that Jesus died for us all and rose again.”

    Jesus gave up an entire weekend for your sins!

    ” I can understand the ACLU’s reluctance to add the horror of atheism to the abomination of homosexuality.”

    The ACLU has defended Nazi’s. While atheists don’t have such a good reputation, we don’t outrank Nazis.

  • Jeff Eyges

    While atheists don’t have such a good reputation, we don’t outrank Nazis.

    In their eyes, we do.

  • Wednesday

    It’s a shame that the gift was initially refused, but let’s remember that this is about Constance, not us. She is not yet a legal adult, but she has very courageously stood up to her school and risked a lot of hostility from her town (and has definitely seen a lot of hostility from her classmates). While we’re all cheering her on we should also remember that doing that sort of thing is difficult. If prominent atheist financial support would make the backlash worse for her due to the bigotries held by people in her town and state, then it’s up to Constance, not us, to decide if she wants to shoulder that additional burden. (Not that she was the one who even decided here, it was someone at the ACLU, but I think my point stands.)

    I also think it’s unfair to paint ourselves as more socially disparaged than LGBTs _because_ the ACLU turned down atheist money while taking an LGBT case. I think we should recognize that oppression and bigotry is difficult to fight, and sometimes it makes strategic sense to not overwhelm people on the fence with _all_ the boogymen their community decries when the current issue is really just one group of boogymen. Atheists (as atheists, orientation and gender identify ignored) are not the targeted group in the whole prom fight; it’s LGBT folk (as LGBTs, religious affiliation ignored) who are.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Tribbles post is true. The kids had a “private” prom without the dirty dyke.

    Fuckers.

  • http://weneedus.tumblr.com/ Ted

    You mean “Loathing” where you wrote “Trembling.” It works much better when you get the reference right. Uncle Duke, he was the dude.

  • bbk

    I side with the Missippi ACLU’s initial decision, well, just because these people have good reasons to be afraid for their personal safety. I would demand that they accept the donation and clearly demarcate the LGBT issue as a religion vs secularism issue (it is!) but not when it risks someone’s personal safety. I don’t think that the ACLU in Mississippi acted out of bigotry or cowardice and I am sure that some of the decision makers may have been atheist or agnostic themselves. I’m all about throwing Christian privilege back in the face of these bigots and proving to them that we are a secular nation and that they’re just a bunch of idiots, but I don’t think we need to fight losing battles to prove that we are a persecuted minority. I think we need winning strategies that keep everyone safe.

  • Polly

    It’s sad that they are so bothered by 1 lesbian couple. But, it’s an awkward age, sexually. It’s probably just too much for them to be exposed to a real life example of how different the world is from what little of it they’ve seen so far.
    I have no problem with teens using their own money to throw a private prom wherein they can feel comfortable. The school admins could’ve at least put it to a vote: Inclusive prom or no prom. I bet “Prom” would’ve won out and no one would say anything because the majority had spoken.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    What you wrote for the “obligatory snark” is along the lines of what I thought of when I heard the news. This is the organization that defends the most hated groups and people to make sure that their freedoms are not violated . . . but accepting a donation from an atheist is too controversial?

    I’m glad they changed their minds eventually. Hopefully, it was perhaps the view of some people in the organization but not everyone.

  • http://www.punkassblog.com Antigone

    I have no problem with teens using their own money to throw a private prom wherein they can feel comfortable

    I sure as fuck do. This kind of stupid bullshit is why we still have segregated proms. Their “comfort” is at the expense of excluding their fellow classmates.

  • Samuel Skinner

    And in further news…

    http://advocate.com/News/Daily_News/2010/04/05/ACLU_Investigating_Fake_Prom/

    Because seperate but equal isn’t just for people with a different skin color. Truly the South continues its strong tradition of making the rest of the nation look progressive by comparison.

  • Virginia Janes

    Allow me to shed a little light on why the ACLU inappropriately over-extended its reach into the MSSC’s business of organizing the Second Chance Prom. I’m a Mississippi native and have been involved with gay rights activism there for several years, which has brought me into contact with the Mississippi branch of the ACLU as well as the MSSC. I know for a fact that some of the MSSC leadership work for the local ACLU as well. According to another member of the MSSC, almost all the leadership of the MSSC (save those that also work for the ACLU) wanted to accept the gift graciously, and immediately.

  • Eurekus

    The firm and completely irrational stance theists have never ceases to flabergast me. I cop it from my wife in the way she is so determined to bring up our children.
    Theists deep down know their argument can be rationalised away very easily by us, so the stance they take is completely ridiculous and is refleted in the way they treat others of a different opinion.

    We can never underestimate their irrationality, it breaks down marriages, blows up buildings, discriminates against homosexuals and brings out the worst in human nature. Let’s not be surprised the rationally minded get treated so badly in the world today, but let’s never give up the struggle.

    Incidentally, with my wife, I’m now taking a passive approach using rational thought brought up by me at strategic times. I can’t use a more direct approach, it’ll be catastrophic. To think, this is what theism has done to a woman who otherwise is gentle. Also, once when I looked at a church I thought of it as a place of goodness. But science has shown it for what it is, a place of evil deceit.

  • Katie M

    http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Constance-quit-yer-cryin/367776042862?ref=ts

    The intended purpose of this page was (basically) to bring together people who feel that Constance ruined everything for the students. Happily, this has backfired on them spectacularly, because most of the people joining are her supporters and have changed the page’s direction.

  • Demonhype

    “Constance quit yer cryin”

    Honestly, it’s disgusting. The only ones in this situation who are “crying” are the hideous Christian bigots. “Boo hoo hoo, WAAHHH! All I wanted to do was to discriminate against people I don’t like (using a public institution/money, no less), and the damn evil homos won’t lie still and take their righteous floggings like my religion and warped sense of “‘Merica” says they should! WAAHHH!!!”

    Nothing more nauseating than ugly bigots accusing someone of “crying” or “whining” for having the audacity to stand up for their rights. Fucking bullies.

  • KShep

    I just ran across this:

    http://thebloggess.com/?p=6455

    She’s the funniest writer on the web, and rarely writes anything approaching seriousness, but she decided to weigh in on this subject.

    Beautiful. Made tears well up.

  • Katie M

    @KShep-Wow, thanks for the link.

  • Will E.

    Ted @ 9:

    The reference is correct as is; it’s to this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear_and_Trembling

  • Katie M
  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com Jim Speiser

    Let us remember that this is from a state whose governor thinks the slavery issue “weren’t diddly.”

  • Thupmalumpacus

    Let us also remember that broad-brush stereotypes are neither reasonable nor just.


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