Did a Tennessee College Professor Really Force Her Students to Wear a Rainbow Ribbon?

Here’s the story as the conservative media tells it: Linda Brunton, a liberal professor at Columbia State Community College in Tennessee, forced students to wear rainbow ribbons and tell people who asked them about it that they were supporters of gay rights.

Students then had to observe public reaction and write a paper about how they were allegedly “discriminated against” while wearing the ribbons.

When several students objected to being forced to support conduct that violates their faith convictions, Brunton brushed aside their concerns, described their views as “ignorant and uneducated,” and explained that she hoped this assignment would cause them to change their beliefs. Regardless of their convictions, students had to express the views she mandated in order to receive class credit.

The Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom even sent the school a letter (PDF) demanding an apology and a promise that this assignment will never be given again.

Of course, I’m having a hard time believing that a professor would “force” students to do this against their will. But let’s take this one issue at a time.

Was this a good assignment to begin with? Absolutely. It’s good for students — especially college students — to step outside their comfort zone and experience what it’s like to be part of a minority group. In Tennessee, where gay rights opponents likely outnumber the supporters, pretending to be a supporter when you’re not is a good way to gauge what that’s like. You might even learn to empathize with people who think differently from you.

But this assignment sounds incomplete as reported. We’re not getting the full picture of what Brunton assigned since none of the articles tell us. What about the students who were already gay rights supporters? They weren’t going to get anything new out of wearing a rainbow ribbon. So did they have to wear a cross at a Pride rally? No clue.

Until we know what the full assignment was — which we don’t — it’s hard to take the Christian media very seriously. It’s not like they’re strangers to cherry-picking… (Remember when a professor asked students to step on the word “Jesus”? The purpose was to show the power of symbols, and how students would be averse to stepping on the word Jesus, but the Christian media made it sound like some sort of hate crime.)

What if some students didn’t want to participate in Brunton’s assignment? Did they have any other options? Again, we have no idea. Normally, if a student has a legitimate moral or ethical reason not to complete an assignment — say, dissecting an animal — a teacher will offer an alternative. (For what it’s worth, I don’t know that an alternative was really necessary here.)

Bob Smietana of The Tennessean spoke to Brunton’s friend Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project and he says this assignment was indeed entirely voluntary:

“Students were allowed to opt out, and some did,” said Sanders. “And students were told that if they felt uncomfortable, they could take off the ribbons.”

The assignment, according to Sanders, is one used in many psychology classes (PDF).

Interestingly enough, a Christian student who took Brunton’s class two years ago said this assignment wasn’t even required — it was extra credit:

Columbia State student Jeff Vernon, who attends Collegevue Church of Christ, said he took a class with Brunton two years ago. He said she was clear about her support for gay rights and at one point described those who oppose gay rights as hateful.

“I take offense at that,” he said. “I don’t hate anyone.”

But wearing the ribbon was a voluntary, extra-credit assignment, Vernon said. He did not participate and suffered no consequences.

“It did not affect my grade,” he said. “It did make for an uncomfortable situation.”

Was it extra credit this time around? We don’t know for sure.

The whole point of this assignment, though, was not to convince conservative Christians that they should support gay rights — it was to make them understand what it’s like to be a gay rights supporters in the midst of Christians.

The ADF doesn’t acknowledge that possibility at all in its letter:

Dr. Brunton’s assignment violates decades clearly established law by compelling students to support in public views they either do not wish to advocate or find abhorrent. Wearing the rainbow ribbon — just like pledging allegiance to the flag — “requires the individual to communicate by word and sign his acceptance of the political ideas it thus bespeaks.” So her assignment requires students to “affirm a belief” and reflect “an attitude of mind” of supporting the demands of the homosexual movement.

All I’m saying is we should withhold judgment on this professor and the assignment until we have all the facts. We can’t trust the Christian media to give us those facts because they love to play the Discrimination Card at every opportunity.

I’ve tried to contact Brunton to get her side of the story, but no luck so far. I’ll provide an update if I hear from her.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • fentwin

    If the only reason you want to get a higher education is to just hear things with which you already agree, I suggest Liberty University.

    • 3lemenope

      True, but hearing things with which you disagree is a bit different than being asked to walk around saying things with which you disagree.

      • fentwin

        So a task that does something other than re-inforce pre-existing ideas is a bad thing to be shunned and ridiculed?

        I feel that part of a education is gaining understanding through experience. I took several religions courses in undergrad, a lot of it I didn’t agree with, yet I still wanted to understand that approach towards life. I had to write papers defending various religious beliefs. Did I feel threatened by that? No, I did not. I learned from that experience, I even feel I might have grown a little due to that experience.

        So I still say, if someone is that uncomfortable with an education that exposes them to new, different or opposing views, they should do as Steve84 and I suggest, attend any one of the countless Christian (or whatever flavor of belief) “universities” so they’ll never have to experience anything outside of their comfort zone.

        • 3lemenope

          I am totally confused how you could get that impression from what I wrote.

          Having someone research and then write a paper in defense of a belief or position is a totally different thing than asking/telling them to walk about town and amongst their peers behaving as though they believe something they don’t.

          This distinction is not complicated, but it seems to be escaping a whole lot of people.

          • fentwin

            No, its not complicated, nor is it lost on me. I still say this is a valid exercise in learning differing perspectives. If one’s peers are so intolerant as to belittle a member for engaging in this type of activity, I would think twice about that community.

            If some one’s “faith convictions” are that set, and their community is that reactionary, I still say, find a different university which to attend.

          • Nox

            If the conservative media is accurately reporting what happened, this assignment was a compelled expression of belief. That is never acceptable in any direction.

            Still, the conservative media does has a very long track record of fabricating incidents of persecution against christians. There’s a very good chance we are talking about an assignment that was never assigned.

            • mitlw

              Long record of fabricating incidents? Where is your proof? And what about the long record of fake hate crimes?

              • Space Cadet

                Fake hate crimes? What?

              • Nox


                Christian and non-christian military members successfully petition Arlington Cemetary to allow other headstone options besides a cross.

                Conservative media reports story as “Department of Veteran’s Affairs bans christian symbols”.


                The Supreme Court rules that public schools can no longer hold mandatory sectarian school sanctioned prayers and force students to participate.

                Conservative media spends the next 50 years reporting story as “schools are forbidding christian students from praying”.


                Gay people begin to get the same rights that heteros have already had for several hundred years. Straight people lose nothing for it.

                Conservative media reports the story as “if we let them get married churches will no longer be able to perform straight marriages”.


                A christian mob vandalizes a mosque and murders four muslims in an unprovoked display of christian tribalism.

                Conservative media reports the arrest of these people for murdering innocent civilians as “christians being punished for standing up for their religious beliefs”.

                Any randomly selected five minute segment of Hannity will provide you a few more examples.

                Can you give one example of a “fake hate crime”?

                • KaSo

                  Links, please.

        • barbann

          Yes. When it’s forced on you. To get a passing grade. And it is something opposed to your personal value system. The Constitution doesn’t allow it, not that any public university professors care a hoot about the Constitution or even know it.

          • Normandy

            it wasnt forced, silly sheep-it was voluntary-some students opted out with no effect on their grade

            • Puzzled

              We don’t know all the facts, but this statement seems vacuous if the project awarded extra credit and, as most classes are, the final points are graded on a curve. You getting extra credit does hurt me if there’s a curve.

        • Justin

          Attending a Christian university in no way guarantees a worldview stroke fest.

      • busterggi

        Being asked to say things you disagree with is not the same as being forced to say things you disagree with.

        • 3lemenope

          I agree, but that doesn’t really help so much. Making available class points as extra credit for students who can stomach mimicking a particular ideological position in front of their friends outside of class time (and leaving out in the cold those who legitimately would feel violated by aping that same ideology) is bad news bears.

      • baal

        The free speech point is generally valid but my psych 101 class had a host of off putting (if not dangerous) actions to take for more or less the same class. This included screaming in an elevator and lying down in a parking lot. I’m inclined to lump the rainbow ribbon in the ‘type of things you do in college’ category rather than ‘forced pro-gay speech counter to right to not say stuff I don’t like’ category.

        • Rev. Achron Timeless

          I was able to make up my own elevator experiments for a sociology class. You have no idea how upset people can get if you just stand facing the back wall of an elevator and refuse to knowledge their presence.

          I also just sat in the floor of the elevator and spread out cards to play solitaire for a few hours. That actually got campus security called on me for some reason.

          Taking a few days to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and see how your own “friends” are capable of completely turning on you over a tiny ribbon pin is a deep life lesson that most people never have the opportunity to experience. College is a great place to try that.

      • miketul

        It’s not a matter of being “asked.” It is a matter of being ordered … if you want a passing grade.

        • 3lemenope

          If you actually read the article, you’d know that it was (most likely) an optional/extra credit assignment. I have serious problems with it given what it actually is. No need to make up a strawman about what it isn’t.

      • sking

        I just wanted to clarify that I had this professor and was given the same assignment. You weren’t supposed to say anything at all. The only thing the assignment asked you to do was wear the ribbon and nothing more. Then you were supposed to right a short paper of the reactions you received from wearing it. The paper could have been that you received support, that you received discrimination, or that you received no reaction at all. Also, the assignment was optional. Lastly, she told us that if we did decide to do it and we began to feel uncomfortable that we could take the ribbon off at any time.

    • Stev84

      Or any of the hundreds of other fundamentalist Christian “universities”. There are way, way too many of them.

      • marybowe

        Who decides how many there can be? What gives anyone the right to decide that? Do you not believe in pluralism? Tolerance? Diversity? Peaceful coexistence? If not, how are you going to exit the leftist government university life and coexist in civilty in a marketplace of competing ideas?

    • Bill Willy

      I suggest any of the hundreds of cookie cutter secular humanist religious government universities where only one point of view is tolerated and everything else is vehemently disallowed.

  • ortcutt

    I really wish teachers and professors would stop having assignments like this. We need to get over the Dead-Poet-Society-style of “education”. These students are independent adults, not playthings for professors to act out their experiments on. This is inappropriate whether it’s an assignment or extra credit. If she had suggested that it was something that student might want to try or not, that would be different. That would have treated the students like independent adults.

    • 3lemenope

      Mm. One one hand, I agree, when they go bad they go really bad, reinforcing the notion that professors are, as you say, using their students as elements of an experiment rather than teaching them. On the other, I personally have been in classes where out-of-the-box assignments of this sort were actually extremely effective at getting a point across, especially if the point is subtle and requires experiencing something specific to grasp.

      I suppose I just wish that only teachers who knew what the heck they were doing did assignments like this. In experienced hands, things are far more likely to end at an educational destination and with fewer bruises.

    • closetatheist

      Doesn’t making the assignment extra credit mean that the teacher merely “suggested that it was something that student might want to try or not”?

      • ortcutt

        No. Making it extra credit means that the students that object miss out on that credit. That’s no better than making it an assignment.

        • Gus Snarp

          I’ve got to agree with that too, credit is credit, whether it’s “extra” or not.

          • 3lemenope

            If it were to be rephrased as “extra points for right-thinking students”, it being a bad idea becomes more immediately apparent.

            • sideshow billybob

              Who gets to determine who the “right-thinking students” are? I was under the impression that parts of college were meant to challenge you. After such a challenge, you either came through with a different outlook or your original thought on the subject was reinforced.

              • 3lemenope

                Who gets to determine who the “right-thinking students” are?

                You got it in one.

                I was under the impression that parts of college were meant to challenge you. After such a challenge, you either came through with a different outlook or your original thought on the subject was reinforced.

                Certainly. The question becomes which sorts of challenges are appropriate to the setting and which aren’t. Someone could assert a challenge of this sort to my atheist identity by making me wear a religious symbol, but it would not be appropriate for an educator of mine to ask that of me, because forced public expression is rarely if ever educational and even when it manages to be the educational component is usually swamped by anger and resentment.

                If you want to challenge someone on this basic level, have them write a paper on the subject. If they want a good grade, they’ll do research and stumble into many of the truths that an assignment like this tries to force. If you want a more clever assignment, you have to keep in mind that the chances of breaching the reasonable purview of the learning experience increases greatly. Some teachers can thread that needle, but most can’t, as it requires not just natural teaching talent but also copious experience so as to properly predict and properly respond when the whole thing inevitably goes off-script.

                • Jim

                  > forced public expression is rarely if ever educational

                  No one was “forced”, and if you can’t see the learning potential of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, you’re not thinking particularly hard (or you’ve invested way too much in your argument here to admit the obvious).

            • closetatheist

              Whoa there, even the incomplete Christian media version of the assignment makes it clear that the object was to teach students what it was like to be a discriminated minority. Then, they had to write a paper about the experience – NOT about their views or how their views had changed. Thus, this is not a case of giving points to correct thinking students.

              • 3lemenope

                If you create an assignment that only some students are willing to do because the other students perceive fulfilling it as a betrayal of deeply-held beliefs, then only the students who “think right” about the beliefs in question (e.g. it’s OK to publicly hold myself out as gay) will complete it and get points.

                • The Other Weirdo

                  This whole thing reminds me of the 2007 St. Trinian’s movie where they girls wanted to learn what Jesus might have felt on the cross, so they crucified a girl to a wall.

                  Anyway, what if the assignment had been to see what it’s like to be a (pick randomly) Hassidic Jew among antisemites, and it’s against a student’s firmly held beliefs to sympathize with Jews?

                • closetatheist

                  You’re using the argument that Christians use to get around obeying civil rights laws “If its a sincerely held religious belief then go feck you, I’ll do what I want.” By the same logic you could say the government is oppressing those who are sued when they don’t “think right” about biracial marriage or denying rights to a person of a certain ethnicity – which is why I have to reject your line of reasoning. Again, the students did not seem to have to believe anything in particular to get credit. If it was extra credit, then those who were motivated enough were able to get it and that’s what extra credit is all about.

                • 3lemenope

                  You’re using the argument that Christians use to get around obeying civil rights laws “If its a sincerely held religious belief then go feck you, I’ll do what I want.”

                  When you hold in mind how being a student is not like offering a public accommodation, you might realize how an argument that is bad in one context may be good in another.

                • The Other Weirdo

                  Why teach them bad habits that we’ll only to work harder to break them out of later in life?

                • closetatheist

                  The situations are different, however, the logic is the same. That is where the problem becomes apparent. Plus, forcing a teacher – and then probably college policies – to change how they teach merely because some students have “religious objections” DOES affect the public.

                • KaSo

                  What if we changed the words “religious objections” to what a person believes is “morally wrong”? Like the atheist woman denied US citizenship because she wouldn’t bear arms to protect the US? She feels war and violence are morally wrong and does not want to support it or say that she would do something she feels is against her beliefs.
                  She now has to prove good standing membership in another thing she doesn’t believe in. Is this right?

                  The words one use make a difference…

        • closetatheist

          What’s a more fair way of allowing students to participate or not in an assignment that some may see as controversial? Are colleges supposed to drop every assignment which involves discussions on homosexuality, abortion, religious differences, political inequality….just because some students may oppose? Giving a student a way out by making the controversial assignments extra-credit seems like a gracious compromise to me.

          • ortcutt

            It would be fairer to not have this assignment. Instead, they could have an assignment that involves written work on issues relating to homosexuality, abortion, religious differences, political inequality just like every other class manages to do things.

            • closetatheist

              written work allows the student to never confront anything or anyone which challenges them – because most teachers wouldn’t force a student to write a paper fully supporting a belief with which they disagree (there may be a debate in the paper, but the student would likely have their mind made up already) which is the same problem we would have if we gave coddling alternatives to every single assignment to which a student might feel a teensie weensie bit uncomfortable with…just like in politics, once we start making “religious exceptions” to every rule, where does it end?

          • Gus Snarp

            Of course not, but a discussion in class is a very different thing from being asked to espouse a position one disagrees with in public. There needed to be an alternative assignment if credit was offered for this. Hopefully there was and we’re just not getting the whole story.

  • 3lemenope

    (For what it’s worth, I don’t know that an alternative was really necessary here.)

    If an assignment includes a demand that a student publicly hold themselves out as holding beliefs or values that they don’t actually hold, then an alternative really is quite necessary.

    • Gus Snarp

      I have to agree with this. There is a problem with the assignment if there’s no reasonable opt out. But once again, I doubt we’ll ever get a full, unbiased picture of the facts of the case.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      As I said in the piece, I think this assignment would work only if everybody was asked to put themselves in an uncomfortable situation. There are ways to make gay or liberal or atheist students feel uncomfortable, too, but we haven’t heard if that was presented as an option.

      • 3lemenope

        Is discomfort really the point of the assignment?

        • The Other Weirdo

          Maybe the world would be a better place if Christians learned, for example, how uncomfortable an 11yo Jewish boy can feel on a bus full of Christians when a old man sits down beside him, goes on a full antisemitic rant, then leans in close to the boy and asks, “You are not Jewish, are you?”

        • Spuddie

          Actually it is the point of the assignment. To understand the discomfort of being an outsider.

          • 3lemenope

            That’s a pretty specific sort of discomfort. My point was that the goal isn’t simply “discomfort”; if that’s all you want, you can just play really loud atonal music or turn the room’s temperature up a bunch. The lesson underneath the specific discomfort was about experiencing a different perspective, achieved by publicly signaling membership in a minority.

            It’s not at all clear to me that it would be easy (or safe, or even possible) to universalize such an assignment. As others have pointed out, how do you do this assignment with students who already have the minority experience for real?

        • meekinheritance

          I wondered that too. Learning discomfort does not necessarily lead to learning empathy. For example, maybe the discomfort might teach them how important it is for the gays to be converted, since otherwise they will be persecuted by everyone.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        Yes, exactly. And I’m a bit bothered by the notion of ‘extra credit’ having ‘no effect’. Maybe it had no effect for that student- but say the assignment was to wear wear a cross, and Jewish students objected. Jewish students don’t have the same opportunity to make up marks lost elsewhere in class. Giving extra credit isn’t “no effect”.

        • Jim

          That seems like the Jewish student’s problem for not wanting to role play. Saying words doesn’t mean that you have to accept them as truth.

          • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

            Or a failure on our part to understand things from another person’s point of view, which is kind of the point.

            The fact that someone won’t to go hell for washing their body parts in the wrong order doesn’t change their very real feelings and emotions tied up in washing themselves.

            I think it’s worthwhile getting people to see things from someone else’s point of view. But if you push one they don’t think they can do (as opposed to don’t want to do) then no learning gets done.

            • Jim

              I understand their point of view. I don’t think their point of view entitles them to special treatment. I’m sure there are non-religious reasons why a student might not want to do the extra credit, but I don’t see you talking about those students not having the same opportunity. Why are religious reasons special?

              • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

                I’m having trouble coming up with any non-religious examples, but don’t see why they wouldn’t apply. Perhaps for some vegetarians eating meat?

                I’m not trying to give religion a pass, I’m just trying to recognize that they have a restriction (that I don’t).

      • UWIR

        “There are ways to make gay or liberal or atheist students feel uncomfortable, too”

        Such as letting them experience normal everyday life?

    • The Other Weirdo

      Then again, what are we really teaching kids? That out in the real world they can just back out of a work assignment because it makes them uncomfortable?

      • 3lemenope

        In most lines of work, an employee is not required to hold themselves out as something they are not.

        Look, I’m not arguing that students generally have sensitive feelings and should be coddled. I’m saying that this, specifically this, sort of thing being discussed in the article is problematic in a very specific way.

        Most *adults*, when confronted by a demand from their boss to publicly express something they deeply disagree with as their own belief, have reactions generally ranging from hysterical laughter to a punch to the nose. The only exceptions I can think of are jobs where the job itself is to represent someone or something else. And those people know exactly what they’re getting into.

        • Jim

          >Most *adults*, when confronted by a demand from their boss to publicly express something they deeply disagree with as their own belief, have reactions generally ranging from hysterical laughter to a punch to the nose.

          Where did you work where responding to your boss with laughter or punching him was ok.

          • 3lemenope

            Where did I say it was OK?

            • Jim

              It seemed to be implied when you said that MOST adults would react with laughter or violence. When MOST people do a thing, it implies that that thing has some positive level of acceptability.

              • TCC

                No, no it doesn’t. That’s some kind of implied argumentum ad populum you’re doing there.

              • Space Cadet

                Except that’s not what 3lemenope wrote.

                have reactions generally ranging from hysterical laughter to a punch to the nose

                (emphasis mine)

                The two examples given would be on the extreme ends of the reactionary scale with a huge gray area in the middle. It’s that gray area that 3lemenope implied most people would likely be, not the two extremes.

      • Puzzled

        Schooling is meant to prepare students for life (in many ways, and broadly understood) not to serve as a simulation for life.

  • Heather

    I already know what it is like to be discrimated against as a Christian…but she would not let me write about that. She started treating me like a second class citizen but the assignment was her way or nothing. I dropped the class.

    • The Other Weirdo

      How are you discriminated against a Christian?

      • closetatheist

        Because she was confronted with a belief that she didn’t agree with and felt *gasp* uncomfortable!

        • 3lemenope

          Or you could let her speak for herself, perhaps.

        • The Other Weirdo

          I prefer to hear from her, rather than someone who is imagining the sins that she might be committing.

          • 3lemenope

            Apparently we are the mundanes residing amongst a meld of telepaths.

    • RobMcCune

      If you’ve spent time in a country where your religion is not the majority, then you can write a paper about real discrimination.

      BTW, No not being able to write a paper about being denied the right to rule does not count as real discrimination.

    • Sven2547

      I already know what it is like to be discrimated against as a Christian.

      Unless you live in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, or China, I highly doubt it.

    • SirReal

      Can you attend one of a dozen churches in your town? Can you pray wherever and whenever you wish, even out loud, and get the support of the majority of bystanders? Can you say you’re a Christian and still run for and win public office? Can you wear a cross necklace or pin, as well as a T-shirt declaring your belief, and not be criticized or condemned or even glared at?
      Yeah, you’re not being discriminated against, Heather. The object of the lesson was to experience something you don’t already experience… to put yourself into the shoes of another human and experience the results. If you can’t do that, then you should have asked for another extra credit assignment and then addressed it with a counselor or something when denied.

      I believe this lesson is a good one to learn and would have suggested that nonbelievers wear a cross to see how they are accepted and smiled at rather than reviled. You cannot know how others truly feel, or at least come close, until you walk in their shoes for awhile.

    • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

      Not being in the majority anymore isn’t being discriminated against.

    • Spuddie

      Discriminated against, from doing what? Please be specific.

      When most people talk about Christians being discriminated against in this country, it usually amounts to whining about not being able to exert some kind of privilege over others.

      Is that the case or do you have something else to share with us?

    • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

      Ask someone in the LGBT community what it’s like to be discriminated against. I’m sure you’ve never been shunned by your friends and family, demonized by huge organizations and brutally assaulted for being a Christian.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      please tell us all about how you are discriminated against as a Christian. Give specific examples.

    • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

      We’re all still waiting for your example of being discriminated against, and it had better be good.

    • Semidaunted

      “I already know what it is like to be discrimated against as a Christian.”

      You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    • onamission5

      I wasn’t aware that second class citizens got to be in charge of damn near everything, get catered to right and left, as well as getting to be the majority.
      One time you may have had to do something that didn’t quite sit right and that’s being a second class citizen. Oh, okay, if that fits your persecution complex, but be advised that actual second class citizens might not have much sympathy for your predicament.

    • John (not McCain)

      It really is a rough world out there. Maybe you’ll be in heaven soon and everything will be much better. Good luck!

  • Mick

    No way would I go out in public wearing a rainbow ribbon among American Christians. It could be dangerous.

    • Gus Snarp

      You’re mostly safe in well lit, heavily populated, public places.

      • busterggi

        Nope. Real Amurkin Christians have scopes on their blessed rifles.

    • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

      And that’s a damn shame.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      I certainly wouldn’t in many areas and I AM gay!

  • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

    Is it REALLY so inconceivable to try to understand what it’s like to be on the opposing side of your beliefs?

    • Spazticus

      That does require both critical thinking, and tolerance, which is something many religious people are indoctrinated into never acknowledging, much less showing. Then again, it’s easier to demonize that which they don’t understand, and don’t -want- to understand.

      • KaSo

        Is this considered tolerance?
        The alleged remark from the professor saying that personal opinions didn’t matter? Or the assumption that people who have personal beliefs that gay sex is sinful are “uneducated”?

        When is it OK to insult and belittle people whose beliefs or worldview differs from ours?

        • UWIR

          When those beliefs are evil.

          • Puzzled

            And there goes “freethinking.” The net effect of this sort of thinking – you attack and silence those whose ideas you think are evil, while others do the same – is that those who are most powerful win, and set the terms of the debate for the foreseeable future.

  • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

    At my campus, I sometimes see students wearing blinders and using a white cane to experience what it is like for a blind person.

    What you describe seems like it might be the same kind of learning experience.

    A agree that we should await more information before passing judgment one way or the other.

  • Michael David Barber Moghul

    Anyone who doesn’t see this as an opportunity for research (which is exactly the point) to get real, first hand, empirical evidence, on a subject, is either a retard or a moron.

    • Spazticus

      I see what you’re suggesting here, but let’s not lump in the mentally disabled with those who are ignorant by choice.

      • closetatheist

        To be fair, he did use an “or” in there, implying that the two groups are separate and exclusive of each other…

    • wombat

      I get a bit uncomfortable when I see ‘retard’ thrown around. ‘Moron’ feels far enough removed from its original use as a term for the mentally disabled, but ‘retard’ feels like it’s still a bit raw as a nasty term for mentally disabled people. I’m not mentally disabled, nor do I personally know anyone who is, so I may be wrong. But it just feels, well, wrong.

  • Anna

    This reminds me of speech and debate class in high school. You had to argue whatever position the teacher assigned you, and you were supposed to do a convincing job.

    We had a college exercise like this, too. We all had to wear placards on our backs designating a specific minority group, while the class would make negative remarks. We had to guess what group we’d been assigned. IIRC, the purpose was to get us to understand what it felt like to be the target of prejudice. No one opted out, and this was at a Catholic university.

    • Gus Snarp

      But what you describe is something that takes place in the classroom, or perhaps on a debate stage where it’s known that participants argue points whether they agree with them personally or not. These people were (allegedly) asked to go out among the general public espousing a view that they do not agree with. That’s coerced speech if (big if, given how little we know) there was no alternative, and it’s not OK, even if we think the views are right and should be no big deal.

      • Anna

        True enough. I’m not sure I’d agree with forcing students to take part, but it doesn’t seem particularly onerous to me. Wearing the placard for that college exercise made me uncomfortable, but I did it anyway.

    • Gus Snarp

      Fun off topic aside: Freshman year we did argumentative writing similarly to the debate: you got a side and had to research it and write a paper, regardless of whether you agreed. I got “Marijuana should be illegal”, and I agreed entirely with the proposition. Until I started doing the research and realize how dishonest I had to be to make my case. In the end it turned me into an advocate for marijuana legalization.

      • Artor

        This toke’s for you then! *puff puff*

      • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

        Welcome to the party!

        • Gus Snarp

          Well, it was a long time ago.

    • Carmelita Spats

      A Catholic university? I would have LOTS of role-playing suggestions…for empathy’s sake:

      1. Students can take turns pretending to be a rape victim from ANY Latin American, Catholic, country where access to emergency contraception is prohibited or very restricted. Some students may prefer to play the challenging role of police officers who expect sexual assault victims to fill out paperwork evaluating the legitimacy of the rape BEFORE the victim is given permission to obtain a “legrado”, an abortion.

      2. Role play an African woman whose husband has AIDS and she’s told that condoms don’t prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Make sure the person playing the cynical Catholic healthcare worker is able to keep a straight face.

      3. Invite a Catholic priest to play the role of a Brazilian mother whose nine-year-old child has been brutally assaulted and impregnated. Someone else can volunteer to be the sexless bishop who tells the mother that she is to be excommunicated if her third grader does not undergo a pregnancy and a c-section. True to life, not script, the person playing the bishop must show outrage at the mother and the pediatricians, not the rapist. As in “real life”, the child rapist will not be excommunicated.

      4. Students can dress up as unfortunate altar boys from a German church under the guidance of Ratzinger’s brother, deaf children from St. Rita’s Residential School or 16th century natives of the Goa colony in West India. All of the crimes are equally hideous.

      The cult is forced to “play nice” in countries where secular laws prohibit their insanity. We are under no obligation to forget their atrocities even when they offer mealy-mouthed apologies, “sensitivity training” and Kumbaya pie. I agree with Hitchens, “Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and
      outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer
      consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a
      marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they
      behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could
      not refuse.”

      • Anna

        I’m certainly not defending the Catholic church! I was only 17 when I was accepted and unaware of all the atrocities the church has been responsible for. Given what I know now, I wouldn’t choose to attend a Catholic university.

        That said, my college was on the more liberal side of things. I never ran into any fundamentalist Catholics. The nuns seemed pretty progressive, and I never heard anyone railing against homosexuality, birth control, abortion, or anything else. We weren’t forced to participate in religious rituals, and one of my philosophy professors was an outspoken atheist.

  • Sven2547

    The ongoing barrage of one-sided “stories” about those evil liberal professors who love to trample students’ Christian faith always set off my bullshit-detector.

  • Art_Vandelay

    It’s a tough question. I’m trying to figure out if there’s anything that would make me object to this assignment. I suppose if you asked me to wear a swastika, I would have to. Does the anti-gay crowd see rainbow ribbons on the same plane as swastikas? Wearing a cross around my neck would make me wildly uncomfortable but I guess that’s the point.

    • eric

      Wearing a cross around my neck would make me wildly uncomfortable but I guess that’s the point

      I don’t think that’s the point. I think its for the student to experience what its like to be an unpopular minority. If so, a cross (in TN) wouldn’t do it, even if it made you feel uncomfortable.

      I kinda agree with Hemant that the assignment as described seems a bit incomplete. There are many such symbols to choose from; seems obvious from a pedagogical point of view that a good teacher would give several options or consider alternative symbols when a student objects to the initial assignment.

      The story’s also pedagogically suspicious because if the Prof. really did make such a narrowly focused assignment, it would quickly become known and lose its effect. The campus reaction would quickly go from “what, you support gay rights?!!!???!?” to “Oh, you must be in Prof. Bruntun’s class.” IOW for assignments like this, good pedagogy almost requires the Prof. change up the symbols on a regular basis or allow a wide variety of symbols to be used every year. Otherwise it doesn’t work.

      • Art_Vandelay

        I think its for the student to experience what its like to be an unpopular minority.

        Well in that case, it’s the people who already know what it’s like to be an unpopular minority that are ineligible for the assignment. They’re the ones getting screwed. What do you do for those people?

        • Jim

          They do the assignment and write about how it relates to their own life experience. I don’t see anywhere where it says that the student had to write about how it changed their views.

          • Art_Vandelay

            Of course not, but if the point of the exercise is to see what it’s like to be an unpopular minority, how can anyone who is already an unpopular minority take part?

            • Jim

              It seems pretty simple to me. They write about how the experience relates to their current life. Extra credit earned.

        • eric

          I think good pegagogy almost requires a variety of symbols be allowed (see my reasons above). So in the case of someone who (for example) already walks around wearing a rainbow ribbon, you have them take a different (unpopular minority) position. They may not learn as much because a lot of the treatment may be similar, but they’ll still learn a different perspective, and they’ll still have something to write about.

    • Gus Snarp

      The attorney’s statement did mention it being “abhorrent”, so maybe they do think it’s on the same plane as a swastika (or maybe worse, you never know who you’ll get in these right wing groups). Whatever the legality of the case, I contend that if you find wearing an emblem supporting the rights of gay people to be abhorrent, you’re a disgusting excuse for a human being.

  • b33bl3br0x

    I had what was basically a civics course in college in which informal debates were a part of the curriculum. It was in a group setting and you were able to argue which ever side you wanted.

    Being the contrarian that I am, I used to purposely pick the side I expected that almost no one would be on simply for the sake of furthering discussion*. Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, no one seemed to pick up on what I was doing but the prof.

    *I sometimes made morally questionable statements purely to be provocative.

  • Highlander

    Notice the quote from ADF’s letter?
    “Wearing the rainbow ribbon — just like pledging allegiance to the flag — “requires the individual to communicate by word and sign his acceptance of the political ideas it thus bespeaks.””
    So they admit that the pledge of allegiance is accepting a set of ideas, one of which is that we are ‘One nation, under God’, something most athiests would disagree with. Yet, somehow, that isn’t an establishment of religion, while the rainbow ribbon is, somehow, disestablishing religion by showing acceptance of ideas that a Christian disagrees with. So, once again, we see a double standard. Everyone who is a Christian shouldn’t have to say things they don’t believe in, but everyone should have to say the things a Christian believes in.

    • frankbellamy

      Actually, this has nothing to do with establishments of religion, either in the case of the rainbow or the pledge. The ADF letter was quoting Justice Jackson’s majority opinion in West Virginia Board of Education v Barnette, where the US Supreme Court ruled that requiring students to recite a pledge they did not believe violated the free speech clause, not the establishment clause. (That case was decided more than a decade before “under god” was added to the pledge of allegiance.) I hope ADF would agree that atheists should not be required by public schools to recite the pledge of allegiance, I am not aware of them saying or doing anything that would suggest otherwise.

      If a christian public school teacher told an atheist student he had to stand and recite the pledge of allegiance, with the words “under god”, because it would teach something about what it is like to be a christian, would you think that is ok? What if a teacher required an atheist student to wear a cross and observe peoples reactions, again for the sociological lesson? I would find that a complete violation of the students free speech right. Free speech isn’t just the right to advocate those ideas one believes in, it is also the right not to advocate the ideas one does not believe in. That is the essential holding of the Barnette case, the reason atheist students do not have to recite the pledge of allegiance. Similarly, students can be required to observe and learn about things in class, including what it is like to be a supporter of LGBTQ rights, but they can not be required to actually advocate LGBTQ rights. It’s the exact same principle. And this assignment, as reported, does cross that line. (I share Hemant’s skepticism of the accuracy of conservative media in cases like this.)

      Here’s a longer version of the quote from Jackson’s opinion in Barnette, that very clearly applies here: “It is also to be noted that the compulsory flag salute and pledge requires affirmation of a belief and an attitude of mind. It is not clear whether the regulation contemplates that pupils forego any contrary convictions of their own and become unwilling converts to the prescribed ceremony, or whether it will be acceptable if they simulate assent by words without belief, and by a gesture barren of meaning. It is now a commonplace that censorship or suppression of expression of opinion is tolerated by our Constitution only when the expression presents a clear and present danger of action of a kind the State is empowered to prevent and punish. It would seem that involuntary affirmation could be commanded only on even more immediate and urgent grounds than silence . . . To sustain the compulsory flag salute, we are required to say that a Bill of Rights which guards the individual’s right to speak his own mind left it open to public authorities to compel him to utter what is not in his mind.” Note that the court is clear that the requirement to affirm a belief through words or actions is a problem, even if there is no requirement to actually hold the belief. Do you really think Justice Jackson was wrong?

      • KaSo

        Thank you. You stated many of my thoughts about this.

  • Splendid

    “Was this a good assignment to begin with? Absolutely. It’s good for students — especially college students — to step outside their comfort zone and experience what it’s like to be part of a minority group.” It’d be an even better assignment to have them wear Klan robes for a day. Talk about “outside their comfort zone”! Heck, after that you may as well just give ‘em their diplomas right then and there.

    • The Other Weirdo

      I don’t think so. The KKK is a choice group. I am not sure the same rules apply to choice groups as to birth groups.

      • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

        Yep, thats a terrible, terrible analogy. The KKK chooses to believe in bigoted nonsense. Not at all like any other groups I know…

        • The Other Weirdo


          • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

            Talking about the various examples of bigotry in the Bible. Against women and homosexuals and so on.

      • UWIR

        Supporting gay rights is a choice.

    • Artor

      Dude, this is Tennessee. Wearing Klan robes is hardly a controversial position. Memphis, March 30, 2013;


      • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

        But why the fuck isn’t it?

  • Carmen

    This reminds me of a class I taught in a law school where students are assigned to represent a side in a pretend lawsuit. We would use issues of topical interest, including cases involving rights of same-sex couples to marry and to adopt children together.

    Some students expressed objection to representing a side with which they did not agree. It was mostly religious students who objected to representing the gay couple. There were students who were pro-gay rights who also had to represent the other side and argue against gay rights, but frankly I heard from them much less.

    Lawyers have to be able to see both sides of a case to represent their clients effectively. I told the students who objected that it was a valuable lesson to learn how to argue the other side, that they might not always personally believe in the same things as their clients but their job is to represent the client. Also this was a fake case which will have no effect on anything other than their grade.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      It is standard for debate teams to have to prepare for a topic and only find out who is arguing for and who against just before the actual debate. You should be able to argue the other side persuasively. If not, I rather doubt you understand the other side and are not really qualified to counter those arguments. I certainly wouldn’t want such a person representing me in a legal matter.

      • eric

        If you look at some of the legal cases put up by creationists, your doubts appear confirmed. In many cases they seem either unwilling or unable to be able to put themselves in the shoes of even a neutral judge – i.e., to understand what sort of legal argument he or she may find compelling – let alone the other side. This may be the most obvious example.

    • Puzzled

      Did you take the comments they made and publish them in a newspaper without context?

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    When I was in undergrad, there was a state ballot initiative that would have allowed casino gambling to return to one county in the state. I was required to perform in a rally against that initiative as part of one of the choirs to which I belonged. As it was also a class for which I got a grade, opting out of singing at the rally was not an option. I resented being required to participate in a political rally for a cause in which I had no strong convictions either way. So no, I don’t think the students should have been required to wear anything that indicated they supported a cause that they in fact didn’t support (if indeed that is what happened…right wing media are known to distort and even outright lie in such stories). But if true, this shouldn’t have been required. Things like that only make people who are only moderately against gay rights harden their positions. There’s no benefit. Yes, I think there is an argument to be made for having someone feel what it’s like to face prejudice and discrimination, but since social conservatives in America are well known for their lack of empathy and their hypocrisy, I have little optimism that such an exercise would yield the desired enlightenment.

    • UWIR

      Was this a private school? I can’t imagine that if you had really pressed the issue, a public school would have been able to get away with that (although you may have had to get a lawyer, and it might not have been worth the trouble if it only mildly annoyed you).

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        Private school affiliated with an Evangelical denomination.

        I told the story because it’s why I’m not a fan of pressing people into pretending they believe something they don’t (or vice versa). In fact, I think it’s a quick way to get a reaction against your cause, no matter how noble you may think it is. I realize the professor was just trying to get the students to understand what it was like to be part of a minority. Members of majority groups are too often lacking in empathy for minorities. I grew up in the south and am fully aware of that entitlement syndrome. But there was probably a better way to make that point. The backlash against this method was predictable and avoidable.

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    I sincerely hope there were other options besides wearing a pride ribbon. As you said, those already for equal rights would get nothing from that. I hope the assignment was wear something that labels you a minority and can provoke strong negative response, not wear this one specific thing. If it was only the pride ribbon, I object. Even if it’s optional and extra credit, it’s still points that only those with a certain (correct) view can get, and others cannot. Points towards a grade should not depend on views.

    • Artor

      The entire point of the exercise is to learn what people who hold unpopular views have to deal with. If it wasn’t a pro-LGBT position, it would have to be something equally controversial, or the lesson is pointless. Giving people extra credit for staying in their comfort zone isn’t going to teach anything.

      • onamission5

        It sounds like a really watered down version of the blue eyes/brown eyes exercise, which my frikkin’ third grader handled with more aplomb than these college students. And he was 8.

      • Tobias2772

        I agree 100%. Teaching someone to be able to truly empathize with a discriminated against minority is a valuable but difficult lesson plan. It is fraught with emotionalism and irrationality. You cannot force someone to learn that lesson – they have to be ready to hear what it is teaching. That said, I look forward to hearing a less biased and fuller account of what really happened – preferably from several other students.
        PS: The blue eyes/brown eyes experiment happened in the fifties. I would be seriously frowned upon by psychologists today. It is, however, a very recommended view on the link below.

      • KaSo

        I think differing views would be a better expression. Because the unpopularity of the view depends upon the group one is with at th time.

  • BrandNewMe

    Hmmmm, then how would theists feel about forcing atheists to act as if the athiests were theists or be shunned….Oh, that’s right, theists pull that crap all the time.

  • Semidaunted

    “He said she was clear about her support for gay rights and at one point described those who oppose gay rights as hateful.

    “I take offense at that,” he said. “I don’t hate anyone.””

    Sure kid, you don’t hate anyone, but you don’t want them or their families to enjoy the same privileges you do. You don’t want them to have happiness even though it would come at no personal cost to you. You don’t hate anyone? Sir, I disagree. Perhaps you could have listened to your teacher a little better.

    • KaSo

      Is that how hate is defined? The dictionaries I read say it’s an intense emotion, usually fueled by anger with the possibility of a person ending up dead. BTW, that is a combined definition not word for word.

      And all unmarried gay (or even straight) couples are unhappy? My cousin, her partner, and their son would disagree. The fact that they could not marry meant they could pay for artificial insemination. The government then paid for the prenatal care, birth, pediatric care, & groceries through WIC, Medicaid, & foods stamps. This was something very affordable to them as their combined income is very substantial. Also unmarried single parent gets a very nice tax refund as well as earned income credit compared to the married parents filing jointly.

      • Semidaunted

        You are thinking of the noun, hate. The verb can also refer to a strong aversion, or dislike. The noun does not mention a death requirement in my webster’s edition. This is, however semantics. The person quoted opposed gay rights and freedoms even though such freedoms would cost them nothing. It is not a justifiable loving stance, no matter how you slice it. I’m sure you will try.

        I was being a tad flippant with the word ‘happiness’. Surely you could grasp the thrust of the argument. (Which you ignored, so, maybe not..). I will say that the fact that your cousin and partner have discovered it in spite of unneeded road blocks is an accomplishment for anyone to be proud of. The fact is that they should have all the same options available to them as other families. Straight couples could put off or simply abstain from marriage for the reasons you list, but for other practical and personal reasons can choose to get a civil marriage. I am saying that all families should have access to the wealth of options. The fact that all families do not need or want all options does not change this alarmingly simple concept.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    How hard is it to understand that the assignment is making students realize what it is like to be part of the minority? They need to see what it’s like in many red states to say that you are in support of equal rights. This is not asking the students to actually change their views, but it is asking them to understand how hateful and bigoted people are. And yes, if you oppose equal rights because you think god doesn’t like it that is hateful. Unintentional hate, but hate nonetheless.

    • KaSo

      So people with differing opinions are “hateful and bigoted”? Could it be possible that gay couples could get the benefits they want another way? Did civil unions offer that? I wonder if marriage could be considered a religious institutions and civil unions a governmental one, but with the same benefits? My spouse and I did not have a religious marriage. Ours was in front of a government official. We get all the benefits a religious marriage offers.

      It sure would be nice to have one less bitter argument in this world…

      • Raising_Rlyeh

        Civil unions do not offer the same rights and in the states that do offer similar rights under civil unions Christians have protested against any equal treatment. A large majority of states that ban marriage equality also ban any legal recognition of same-sex couples which proves that they are anti-gay. When you are verbally and physically attacked for being gay, perceived as gay, or supporting equal rights then it is fair to call your opponents bigoted.

        So tell me, what do you call a group of people that are not satisfied with banning you from marrying? What do you call a group of people that want to deny you any legal recognition or protection under the law?

  • Space Cadet

    I couldn’t decide who to reply to, so I’ll just do a new comment. Apologies if this was brought up elsewhere and I missed it.

    Something’s been bothering me about the various discussions concerning the fairness of extra credit. I think that IF there is no alternative to wearing the ribbon that gives an unfair advantage to the students who are willing to participate. I say “if” because as far as I know we don’t know if there is/was an alternative.


    What about the students who might be willing to participate in this but simply don’t have the time? The three semesters I spent in college were wasted, as I spent more time playing hacky-sack than anything else, so I have no real experience to draw on here. My sister, though, routinely carried 18+ units and worked a full time job. Her work and normal studies took up the vast majority of her time. I don’t know if she or others in a similar situation would be able to fit this into an already overburdened workload.

    I’ve never given much thought to this, never had a reason to, but it seems like extra credit is inherently unfair to those that don’t have extra time.

  • Normandy

    no, it was voluntary-just silly christian bigots mad at the gays…

  • kaydenpat

    “Students were allowed to opt out, and some did,” said Sanders.

    So what’s the problem then? Not understanding why Alliance Defending Freedom is taking this up as a controversy. We’re talking about voluntary action here.

  • sking

    I am a former student of Dr. Brunton’s psychology class. She offered this same assignment to us as extra credit. It was entirely optional. As I understood the assignment when it was given, it was not to force us to support gay marriage. It was for us to have an understanding of discrimination. It went along with what we were learning in the book. I thought she made it very clear what the purpose of the assignment was and that we did not have to participate if we did not want to. I am a Christian as well and I decided not to take on the assignment. However, the reason I chose not to was just because I didn’t need the extra credit. She gives plenty of other extra credit opportunities throughout the duration of her course to where no one should feel pressure to have to take on this assignment. In no way did I feel forced, uncomfortable, or offended by the assignment when she gave it. I think she is a wonderful professor. She is just the type of teacher who really cares about her students actually learning the material. She also really wants everyone to just have a deeper understanding of the world and understand other people’s emotions and struggles they experience. It is hard to gain an understanding of that when you live in the sheltered bible belt. I really appreciated her trying to get people to step out of their boundaries and see a bigger picture. I really enjoyed her class and thought she did an excellent job teaching it.