Let’s go back to September of 2011, to New Heights Middle School in South Carolina. The school is located in Chesterfield County, a place that’s home to over two hundred Christian churches.
I wrote about an incident that happened there in The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide:
Not only did [Chapman] use his time to rail against atheism, evolution, and homosexuality, he told the students that “a relationship with Jesus is what you need, more important than anything else.” Christian rapper Bryan Edmonds (a.k.a. B-SHOC) later joined him onstage and performed “overtly Christian songs” for the crowd. Even the principal joined the mix by telling students to attend a local church.
But that wasn’t all. Students were told to sign a pledge dedicating themselves to Jesus Christ and teachers were told to pray with students before returning to the classroom. Afterward, the public school’s own website declared that “[b]efore the day ended, 324 kids had either been saved, or had re-committed their lives to the Lord.”
We know about this incident for two main reasons.
First, B-SHOC idiotically posted a video of the event to YouTube (the relevant portion begins at the 3:04 mark):
Second, eighth-grader Jordan Anderson decided he didn’t want to attend the assembly because he was an atheist and he knew what it was going to be like. His teachers said he could skip it, but he would have to spend that time in the room normally reserved for in-school suspensions. Given that option, Jordan went to the gym.
Afterwards, with the help of his father and the ACLU, they filed a lawsuit against the school… and the case was eventually settled. Jordan and his family walked away with a whopping $2.00 (yep, two dollars) and the school was told in no uncertain terms that it could not hold religious assemblies again.
It’s been nearly 18 months since all of that went down, and Ellen Meder of the Morning News has a follow-up with the Andersons. Life hasn’t been easy for any of them, especially Jordan, since the lawsuit:
[Jordan’s] eagerness to go back to school might be surprising for any teen, but it’s especially stunning in Jordan’s case, given that over the past two years he’s endured endless bullying, name-calling and threats — even death threats — in the halls of Chesterfield County’s New Heights Middle School.
“I had tons of bullying, just awful stuff I don’t even want to repeat,” Jordan said. “When some people make those death threats, they almost make you think they’ll really kill you.”
“I’ll put it bluntly,” [father] Jonathan said. “There were a couple of kids telling him if he doesn’t get himself to God, they’re going to kick his ass. Yeah, it’s very Christian-ly.”
Said [mother] Amy, “Oh yeah, people would drive up in our yard, honk the horn and flip us off. We are still called ‘the dark forces’ sometimes. I’ve heard that a lot.”
“You can only take so much of people telling you your husband needs to have his head bashed in and your son needs to do this or that before you go, ‘OK, really?’” Amy said. “We just had plenty of death threats.”
That’s Christian love for you right there.
And, as it turns out, it wasn’t easy for Jordan as an atheist in a religious community even before the incident:
Young girls attempted to pray over him on the school bus, trying to convert him. Teachers singled him out in class for not being a believer. One year a teacher told her class that Jordan was the reason they couldn’t play Christmas-themed games in school, since he wasn’t a believer. (Jordan said he actually loves the festive spirit of Christmas, and like his classmates was disappointed).
Even fairly mundane infractions with middle school rules turned into a proselytizing expedition. When Jordan got in trouble for not wearing a belt — part of the school’s dress code because of sagging pants issues — then-principal Larry Stinson required him to write an essay as punishment. For the essay to be accepted, Jordan said, it had to end by thanking both Stinson and God for allowing him to write the essay and by proclaiming how God would help him remember the dress code in the future.
It’s really incredible that Jordan has come out of this still eager to go back to school and face his peers who appear to have nothing but contempt for him.
Can you imagine putting yourself in his shoes? I don’t think I would have had the guts to keep fighting the good fight at that age. Middle school was awkward enough without painting a giant target on myself. (On the flip side, can you imagine how mentally strong this kid’s gonna be by the time he graduates?)
Jordan is only a high school freshman now. He’s gone through the same struggles that Damon Fowler, Jessica Ahlquist, and a whole host of other brave students have endured. I hope this isn’t the last we hear of him.
And I hope atheist organizations nationwide (Hello, Freedom From Religion Foundation!) will consider recognizing what Jordan has done when he’s ready to graduate and looking for a few scholarships.