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.


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