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!

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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.


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