***Update***: If you’d like to donate to Isaiah, you can do so on his GoFundMe page.
Isaiah (Issah) Smith just graduated from high school after a very eventful year in which he exposed all sorts of religious violations at his school. It’s as good a time as any to take stock of what he accomplished — and what he sacrificed to do it.
Earlier this school year, after being bullied for being gay, Isaiah decided to bring a Bible to school to explain to his classmates why the verses they cited didn’t actually condemn gay people. In the process, he ripped out the pages from Leviticus.
That caused Birdville High School Assistant Principal Glenn Serviente to pull Isaiah from class and warn him that he must not cause a “disruption” by ripping the Bible. (I guess the bullies were not seen as disruptive…?) Isaiah promised not to rip it up any more, but asked for (and received) permission to continue carrying that Bible with him.
But a couple of days later, Serviente summoned Isaiah back to his office:
He asked Isaiah, “how would Muslims feel if a student was tearing up the Qur-an?” and then told him he was suspended. He then demanded Isaiah to give him the book. Isaiah said no, informing Serviente that he did not tear the Bible since being told on Monday that he could not do so. The assistant principal clarified that Isaiah was suspended for merely carrying a ripped Bible at school. He then reached for Isaiah’s Bible without his permission and slammed it on his desk. First he said Isaiah was suspended from school for the remainder of the day, but then changed his mind and told Isaiah he was suspended for three days. He also confiscated Isaiah’s Bible.
At that point, Isaiah contacted church/state separation groups on Facebook like the ACLU and the American Humanist Association. The AHA wrote back and eventually sent the district a letter letting them know they were violating the law by suspending Isaiah when, in fact, he did nothing wrong:
Reprimanding Isaiah for ripping his Bible on Monday violated the First Amendment. Isaiah’s Bible was not the source of disruption, the bullying was. Instead of reprimanding the bullies, the school punished Isaiah for offering an alternative viewpoint on the Bible.
It took a month, but the district eventually cleared Isaiah’s record of any disciplinary problems. (They gave him his Bible back, too.)
After seeing how the Christians at school got away with bullying him while criticizing the Bible got him in trouble, Isaiah began paying special attention to other examples of his school endorsing religion.
And, wow, did he find examples… Not only that, he took pictures, too, which he sent along to the AHA because, as he told me last night, he doesn’t “go to school to go to church.”
So what did he find?
According to another letter the AHA sent to the district this past May, the violations were just piling up.
The school openly sponsored religious Baccalaureate ceremonies.
They placed information about the ceremony on the school’s public calendar, Facebook page, and website:
The principal, Jason Wells, also spoke at the ceremony, as did other administrators, both this year and in previous years and they liberally quoted Bible verses and threw in mentions of “God” and “Jesus.”All of those things are illegal.
The school sponsored and promoted religious assemblies during school hours.
A proselytizing pastor was invited to speak earlier this year and the school district even sponsored overnight retreats at a local church.
Teachers had overtly Christian symbols in their classrooms.
It’s one thing for a teacher to wear a cross necklace or have a Bible in their desks. It’s another when teachers place visible crosses all over their rooms:
That’s what Isaiah helped uncover.
And, once again, district officials capitulated when faced with clear evidence of their wrongdoing:
After the Appignani Humanist Legal Center sent a letter in May to the school district reporting these violations, school officials responded promptly by collaborating with the AHLC to correct these violations while ensuring that students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights are maintained.
“We are very pleased that the school has been willing to cooperate with us to correct these violations,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “These reasonable accommodations strike the appropriate balance between free speech rights and the Establishment Clause.”
The school and the legal center agreed that principals and other school administrators cannot participate in the Baccalaureate ceremonies, though they can still attend as spectators. The school has also agreed that it will no longer hold its retreats in a church but will instead use a local community center. The school will also remove the cross displays in classrooms, though teachers may retain small, personal religious items in or near their desk space so long as the items are not obvious to students. To ensure it maintains its neutrality on religious matters, the school drafted a series of guidelines on handling First Amendment Speech and Religion issues that will be part of the annual faculty training.
I asked Isaiah if he thought the problems would be fixed now. He didn’t think so, telling me, “I don’t trust my school district at all.” But he also added that other students would be keeping an eye out for possible violations next year.
Despite graduating, not all is well for Isaiah. He was kicked out of his house because of his sexual orientation, forcing him to work full-time while he attends community college this fall. His goal is to transfer to a four-year college at some point and eventually become an attorney that focuses on Constitutional issues and/or international affairs.
I asked Isaiah if he had any advice for students who might find themselves in a similar position, getting bullied by classmates for being gay, and he paused for a bit before saying: “It does get better after you move into a gay-friendly environment. Know that you have allies all around you, everywhere. It might be difficult to feel like you’re fitting in, in a conservative Southern school, but the world is much bigger than that and much more accepting of LGBT individuals and individuals who are minorities.”
I would add to that: Isaiah showed a lot of courage in seeking out help when he knew he had done nothing wrong. Most students would have just kept everything to themselves.
On a side note, Isaiah’s activism isn’t limited to school. When he heard that the Westboro Baptist Church was planning to fly to South Africa to protest at Nelson Mandela‘s funeral, he called up the South African Embassy and alerted them to the hate group’s plans. That may have played a role in thwarting the church’s attempts to enter the country.
I wish Isaiah the best of luck in the future. He’s done such a tremendous service exposing religious violations at his high school already; I hope his activism streak doesn’t stop there.