Bible Belt Assemblies at a Public School

Letters-to-the-editor aren’t just displays of opinions.

Sometimes, they can be a story in and of themselves.

Case in point: This letter written by high school freshman Wesley Crawford of Neely, Mississippi in the Hattiesburg American:

I am a freshman at Greene County High School, and I am writing to express my concerns on several assemblies that we have had this year.

It is understood that we live in a region of the country called the “Bible Belt,” and in this region Christianity does play a significant role in the lives and the views of many people. I not only understand this, but I also respect it.

This school year we have had three assemblies where the speaker was a religious figure. The first person was a local preacher. During this assembly he preached to us on the importance of making the right choices and accepting Jesus as our savior.

The next person was a biker-turned-preacher from the Gulf Coast. His program was focused on making the right choices. He didn’t preach to us, but he did mention that turning to Christianity helped him turn his life around.

The other speaker was a preacher from Louisiana. He preached on the importance of living in a Christ-like manner.

These assemblies were all concluded in prayer. We were never given the option to not attend.

I respect all of these people and their commitment to the Christian religion just as much as I respect the Constitution and rights given to us by this document. This time, however, the two are at odds with each other.

The Establishment Clause of the Constitution has been interpreted in many court cases as a wall of separation between church and state.

Moreover, it states clearly in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that no school official shall mandate or organize religious ceremonies.

I have no problem with the assemblies themselves, but public schools are not the place to preach a religion. The Constitution is the reason that this country hasn’t crumbled into a chaotic state.

Now is not the time to overlook this important document. These assemblies, no matter how good of a message they bear, are still technically illegal.

Wesley Crawford

Neely

If this is accurate, a high school freshman just started a firestorm. It’s incredible no one in the media has reported this.

One of the comments on the story comes from Wesley’s mother:

I am Wesley’s mother. He is a very intelligent, articulate, fourteen year old, freshman at GCHS. He is not an athiest, nor does he want all religious assemblies to be removed from schools. If the students want to organize an optional religious assembly, he would not have any problem with it. His main concern is that these assemblies have been organized by the school officials and mandatory. Neither he nor any other student had the option to opt-out.

When he came home and told me about all of this, I encouraged him to write letters and let his voice be heard. He also sent his letter to the Mississippi Department of Education, but so far there has been no response.

I just wanted all of you to know that he is not a punk, nor is he a trouble maker. He is simply a very smart young man who saw a problem and wanted to do something about it.

Let me repeat: Not an atheist. Just a smart kid who wants to protect the separation of church and state.

Another commenter wrote this:

I see at least 2 problems here:

1. If student attendance was mandatory and there were no exemptions or opt-outs, and the primary focus of the event could reasonably be interpreted as proselytizing, then it was illegal. Religious coercion, especially of public school students. is a definite no-no.

2. The Greene County school system is now obligated to offer non-religious and/or non-Protestant “motivational” speakers. If they don’t, they could well set themselves up for a Constitutional lawsuit. Butch (or any other atheist/agnostic/pagan/FSM-worshipper/etc) would be well within his rights to ask to address the student body in the same manner as the three referenced evangelical speakers. In fact, it would be interesting to see an atheist request to address the students under the same conditions afforded the other speakers.

This all depends on the circumstances under which the three previous speakers addressed the students. Were they there by invitation and, if so, by whom? Did they request to address the students? Were the the speeches overtly religious in nature or were the references to Christ (etc) of a personal nature only?

We need the ACLU now.

We also need some confirmation on whether this letter is accurate and the assemblies are going on as depicted.

(Thanks to Butch for the link!)


[tags]atheist, atheism, Christian, Jesus, proselytizing[/tags]

  • http://bellesouth.blogspot.com Bellesouth

    What a brave young man. I hope he knows the road that lies ahead of him.

    When I was in elementary school (still a Christian, mind you), I remember being very uncomfortable about the annual Christmas play, which told the story of the birth of Christ. I knew there was a Hindu in my class and I thought the school should be respectful of all religions.

    I also never accepted a Gideon Bible and the Gideons would give me weird looks. I wonder if the Gideons still go to schools to hand out bibles.

  • Kathryn

    Yes, he’s very brave to do this.

    Or he really, really wants to be homeschooled.

  • http://omega-geek.blogspot.com Spook

    Good man! Glad to see that it isn’t just the godless that are concerned about church-state seperation.

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  • http://butchbailey.com/ Butch

    Thanks for passing this on. Living just down the road from Greene County and working there quite a bit I’m concerned for the young man and his family. I have no concerns for what’s going to happen to the school administrators. That’s because I have no doubt nothing will come of this. Shame.

  • jen

    Sounds like the school my brother attended in Cleveland, TN. They had an invocation and convocation at the graduation ceremony, and a preacher giving the address . . .

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The Constitution is the reason that this country hasn’t crumbled into a chaotic state.

    Uh, this country hasn’t crumbled into a chaotic state? Could’ve fooled me.

  • http://banana-slug.blogspot.com banana slug

    When I was in middle school I saw the same group twice—once in upstate NY and the next year in Southwest PA (we had moved). They were out of FL and sent ‘rock bands’ around to preach a sort of 70′s lite version of Jesus loves you. Each of the bands recorded their own 45, which they sold at the show.
    Apparently they all recorded versions of ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.’
    I remember at the time finding it odd–we had no opt out in either case. It seems this young man has a lot more in one bag than I did at that age.
    I wish him well.

  • http://boremetotears.blogspot.com Lynn

    I just wanted all of you to know that he is not a punk, nor is he a trouble maker.

    Uh, so good that the mother cleared that up?

  • http://mypantstheatre.blogspot.com bullet

    I wonder if he’s had the shit kicked out of him yet.

    Brave kid, though. Like High School isn’t hard enough as it is.

  • http://www.stoptheqtip.ca/ Aditya

    You know, the only problem I see here is that the mother seems to be giving a list of bad things that her son isn’t – and among them is “atheist.” It almost feels like she’s saying that he has this opinion even though he’s not eternally Damned.

  • http://bpabbott.blogspot.com Ben Abbott

    I don’t see the young man as an atheist, or an activist.

    He’s asked some intelligent questions and instigated others to ask more of the same. If there are risks, I don’t think he has invited them, or welcomes them.

    What is impressive to me, is that he has found a position to stand that lies in the middle of the road. Ironically, this is a realm where Jesus walked and one that has no conflict with material evidence … and yet it is a realm of great liability due to the conflict with dogma.

  • http://www.thetimtimes.com Tim Fuller

    Happens all the time around here. No kidding. It’s much worse than just this one example would suggest. All you have to remember is that they are getting away with the same type of nonsense at the Air Force Academy (which has received a LOT MORE attention) to realize that all hope is lost of changing the situation here in Mississippi.

    Who would enforce against such activity? The very people who are trying to push us into it? I think not.

    Enjoy.

  • MPW

    There seems to be a lot of typing being expended, here and especially in the comments section at that site, over the question of whether or not there was an “opt out” offered for students who didn’t want to attend the religious indoctrination assembly. Is that really relevant at all?

    Ethically, it seems beside the point: a school shouldn’t be allowed to proselytize its students, or give over school time and resources to allow others to proselytize its students, period. It doesn’t matter if all the students attend, or half of them, or only one, and it doesn’t matter if it’s “voluntary” or “mandatory.”

    “If you don’t want to go to the Jesus rally like everyone else, just stand up and raise your hand, and then you’ll be allowed to go sit in the corner by yourself” is hardly a decent alternative, especially in a setting like high school where the twin forces of adult authority and peer pressure are both so powerful.

    But beyond the ethical/pedagogical question, I’m fairly sure that it’s a settled matter of law that such “opt out” options don’t make school proselytizing constitutional. I don’t know enough to pinpoint what court case or cases might have determined that – I feel like it was a case over the “under God” clause in the Pledge of Allegiance. Am I just imagining this?

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Happens all the time around here… Who would enforce against such activity?

    Yes it is true. I live in the Bible Belt as well. I don’t know what the big deal is, really. In my experience, most kids don’t really care, nor are they any more likely to become “religious” from listening to a couple of speakers. If the speakers have a positive message, why get hung up on the legal issues? Maybe I just don’t get it.

    Whatever happened to the phrase “When in Rome….” The Bible Belt is the Bible Belt. Miss-sippi (as it’s pronounced there :) .. ) will be Miss-sippi.

  • MPW

    The “big deal,” Linda, is that proselytizing students in school is illegal, unethical and, to top it all off, a waste of educational time.

    “The Bible Belt is the Bible Belt.” Yeah, because it’s assumed as a matter of course that the culture is Christian conservative, that everyone is supposed to be Christian conservative, and if you’re not, you don’t have a voice and that’s just how it is. (That’s what makes kids more religious – and intolerant – not “listening to a couple of speakers.”) Which will never change if people don’t stand up to those cultural assumptions like this young man, and if people like him don’t get at least moral support from other people.

    Don’t fool yourself with your “live and let live” pose. You’re defending the status quo here, and the status quo is not “live and let live,” it’s “our way or the highway.” If you’re poo-pooing efforts to undermine that, you’re part of the problem.

  • Melissa Norris

    Hello, everyone.

    Wesley just found out today that this was here and showed it to me this afternoon. I just wanted to clear up a couple of points if I can.

    I truly did not mean for my comment about Wesley not being an athiest to be taken as derogatory. The truth is that Wesley is really undecided about what he is or is not at this time. After all, he is only fourteen years old.

    Wesley wrote this letter after being bullied at school because he does not go to church. Every time that topic came up at school, he was told that he was a bad person because he was not in church everytime the doors were open. These same children called him an athiest because that is the only thing their narrow minds could think of at the time. These are the same children that called him a homosexual because he wears his hair longer than they do. Again, this is just because of the narrow-mindedness that runs rampant here. These are the so-called good “Christian” children.

    I have not forced any religion or non-religion on him and that is in direct conflict with most parents around here. I have tried to expose him to many different kinds of religions. I believe that my religious rights end where yours begin. This does not mean that I have not tried to teach him good morals and character. Personal responsibility is a big topic in our house.

    Wesley was harassed at school all day today. I suppose that will have to be addressed. Maybe all the administrators were too busy planning their next assembly to do their jobs.

    Thank you for taking the time to read my post.

    Melissa Norris
    Wesley’s Proud Mother

  • ash

    Melissa Norris,

    i didn’t take your comment about your son not being an atheist as derogatory, i doubt many others here did either. you sound like you’re doing a great job in raising your child to be a thoughtful, articulate person, who accepts personal responsibility and is willing to give serious thought to his conclusions – even if his conclusions end up being religious in nature.

    i sincerely hope your son carries on in this vein wherever it takes him, and that he also ceases to be a target for the small-minded hostilities he’s currently experiencing. although, it sounds like even if the bigots continue to harass him, you are already equipping him with the tools (including a loving and supportive family) he will need to survive.

    thanx for taking time to read and respond to all the posts here.
    i wish you + yours well.

  • http://oasis.daleglass.net/blog Katie

    I remember back in middle school I finally decided I was sick of saying the Pledge. In elementary school I had just remained silent for the half-second “under god” clause, but by middle school I wanted nothing to do with it, so I just stayed sitting down, doodling things, while everyone else stood and spoke the Pledge.

    It took a while before my homeroom “teacher” finally got upset by this, and he said I should be “more respectful” or some equally meaningless crap. I just laughed at him, and said the butchery performed on the Pledge by the Knights of Columbus in 1954 was a lot more disrespectful to the nation than I could ever be, given as it was in direct opposition to the establishment clause.

    From then on, though, I returned to saying the Pledge — the 1924-1953 form. I belted it out and plowed right through the “under god” part, not waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. By the end of the semester I had a number of other students chiming in in this manner, so much so that “under god” was completely drowned out by a roar of “indivisible.”

    Education is the single most important thing a nation can invest in. Without a reasonably intelligent population, nothing gets done and crime skyrockets. To that end, it’s profoundly disturbing that we’d poison our own education system with lies and nonsense irrelevant to today’s world, perhaps even to that of the bronze age.

    On June 29th, 2002, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the coerced recitation of the Pledge of allegiance in its current state unconstitutional, so my high school years (99/01 – 04/05) saw a blissful absence of it — but then again, the school had already dumped the Pledge eight years prior.

    I like seeing courageous actions like these in school, especially in regions where it’s the biggest problem. The horrifying thing about all of this is that these preachers like to hide behind free speech, like that makes any sense. It’s wrong to teach biology students that DNA isn’t real for exactly the same reason — schools are for education, not proselytizing.

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