Meet the true heroes who’ve stood up for school religious freedom

Meet the true heroes who’ve stood up for school religious freedom January 17, 2020

By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Co-President
Freedom From Religion Foundation

“There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed.”
– Supreme Court of Wisconsin, Weiss v. District Board, 44 N.W. 967, 981 (1890)


The experience of students and parents who stand up when their public school forces religion on them was the untold story at the White House yesterday, when President Trump convened a mischief-making press conference making it look like our public schools are persecuting believers.

Discrimination, bullying, persecution, threats — even violence — routinely occur when students and parents challenge the illegal imposition of religion in public schools. The harassment is so common that most state/church lawsuits involving public school students require a protective order to keep plaintiff names private. But that rarely stops the harassment and community outrage.

Many of the plaintiffs who carved out significant Supreme Court precedent against religion in public schools were victims of intense hounding, starting with Vashti McCollum and her nonreligious family, who won the first landmark 1948 ruling against religious instruction in public schools. Vashti was fired from a university position, her house was vandalized, she received more than 1,000 letters of hate, her sons were assaulted, and the family cat “lynched.” The son at the center of the lawsuit finally had to be packed off to his grandparents in another state.

Plaintiffs who won the subsequent cases against school-fostered prayer, starting in the 1960s, also became targets, including the Schempp, Jaffree and Weisman families. Even the Catholic and Mormon students, whose suit yielded the most recent high court ruling against prayers or student-led prayers at school events, were targets for vilification. The Southern Baptist-flavored prayers over the intercom at school football games turned them into outsiders in their own school.

One of the most high-profile cases of harassment in recent years involved a young high school student in Rhode Island, reviled in her community for challenging her high school’s prayer banner. Jessica Ahlquist faced bullying and threats at school, on her way home from school and online. She was subject to frequent taunting, as well as an online hate campaign. Her state representative, Peter Palumbo, called her an “evil little thing” on the radio. Jessica eventually needed a police escort to attend public meetings and class. She continued to receive serious rape and death threats even after winning her lawsuit in 2012.

In one of the more extreme cases of persecution in earlier years, Joann Bell and her family were continuously threatened when they filed suit in the 1980s to block prayer sessions and distribution of Gideon Bibles in their Oklahoma schools. She was physically attacked, and eventually her family home was torched.

Where violations involving religious intrusions into our public schools are longstanding and common, the retaliation can be especially fierce. When FFRF sued to successfully halt 75 illegal years of fundamentalist instruction of Dayton, Tenn., public school students by bible college students, FFRF procured a protective order for the family. But the outraged town was determined to “out” the family — to the extent that one of our attorneys drove through the night so he could ask a judge to issue a restraining order to prevent a school board member from identifying the family. The parents were so careful about not revealing their identities that they did not even tell their two young daughters they were the plaintiffs. FFRF only learned years later that the daughters never knew why they had been shunned and subject to constant harassment by classmates in the know. It is not surprising that the town reacted this way. Whole generations of citizens had been miseducated by their public school system to believe that fundamentalist Christianity indoctrination was a normal part of the school day.

FFRF is having to revisit the clear violation of religious instruction in public schools — which should have been halted with the 1948 McCollum decision — in Mercer County, W.Va., where a school curriculum was interchangeable with fundamentalist Sunday school. One lesson plan even taught children to imagine how much fun Adam had sliding down a dinosaur’s neck! “CBS This Morning” had excellent reportage in 2017 about our lawsuit documenting the harm by showing how believers in the majority become insiders and those who step up for the Constitution the outcasts.

Brave FFRF member Marie Schaub, who successfully challenged a huge Ten Commandments monument in front of her daughter’s high school, was targeted in her community and in social media, receiving death threats, public outrage and other retribution.

The family who successfully sued with FFRF and the ACLU of Indiana to recently stop an enactment of the Christian Nativity with bible reading occurring annually in the public high school, were threatened with death. Community members, even the sheriff, were arrayed against them, and there were constant attempts to publicly identity the plaintiffs, who were under a protective order.

In fact, many of the individuals who have been named “Freethinkers of the Year,”  a category FFRF reserves primarily for successful state/church plaintiffs, whether over school violations or other issues, have been subject to harassment.

Likewise, many of the dozens and dozens of students who have received student activist awards from FFRF have been bullied, often for trying to halt illegal religious practices in their public schools.

These students, complainants and plaintiffs are the true patriots — in the best sense of that word. They are often vilified for standing up for true religious freedom, secular schools and government. As Anne Gaylor, FFRF’s principal founder, put it: “There can be no true religious liberty, without the freedom to dissent.” Keeping religion out of our public schools and government ensures true freedom of conscience for everyone, believers and unbelievers, minorities and those in the majority.

U.S. courts have scrupulously protected the freedom of conscience of students, thereby not interfering in parental rights to instruct children at home at they wish. Although the federal courts have been safeguarding student rights for about 70 years, state courts as early as the 19th century barred bible reading and devotions from public schools, knowing of the discord and turmoil religion in schools creates. (In 1844, riots broke out in Philadelphia over the reading of Protestant versus Catholic versions of the bible in schools, resulting in the arson of two Catholic churches and even lives lost.)

When the Supreme Court of Wisconsin issued a decision in 1890 against bible reading in public schools — in a case notably brought by Roman Catholics — Justice H.S. Orton wrote a concurrence with the ringing words featured at the beginning of this article. His warning bears repeating: Let religion once enter our public schools, they will be destroyed.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-founder and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.


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