The American Humanist Association sent a letter to a school district in Hall County, Georgia, this week, warning that the high school football program was unconstitutionally injecting religion into its activities. As church-state disputes go, this one was not exactly a close call: the coaches were praying with students, even sometimes leading the prayers, and constantly promoting Christianity by placing Bible verses on all sorts of documents and other materials.
As AHA's legal director, even in fairly routine matters such as this I'm usually prepared for some backlash. There are always a few who will insist that our request for government religious neutrality is somehow an “attack on Christianity,” which of course it’s not.
It's always nice, therefore, when the response from the school in question is calm and respectful, not overly defensive or emotional. And in this case, the Hall County school officials gave us just such a signal initially, as they sent us an immediate reply saying they would investigate the claims and get back to us.
Outside the official school channels, however, the response was not so encouraging. In fact, in some instances the responses were more akin to what you’d get if you were fundraising for the Obama campaign at a KKK meeting: Commenters expressed outrage, hostility, and even threats, many of which would be unfit for publication.
Still, in the midst of it all were a surprising number of supportive emails not just from around the country, but even from citizens of Hall County. Several alumni, including some recent grads, told us how pleased they were to see our complaint in the news. One wrote, "The entire school was heavily biased toward Christianity." A member of the band, this student said that "Christianity was heavily seeded into the program." Christian privilege is so strong at the school, students said, that some kids pretend to be devout just to avoid ostracism. "I know of people who would bring other religious texts to school and would be asked to put them away," a student wrote, "while Christians would proudly walk around with their Bibles."
With tension in the air because of the AHA letter, one might hope that elected officials would help to put the situation in perspective. Instead, however, fanning the flames with a fear-based, emotional reaction was the area’s congressman, Rep Doug Collins, who was so sure that the allegations were baseless that he issued a statement not long after the letter went public. The school may have needed to investigate the allegations, but Collins didn't, as he ripped at the “liberal atheist” effort to “bully” the high school.
This was hardly a profile in courage for the politician, for public sentiment was already predictably reactive. Reports stated that about 200 students had congregated at the football field before school to pray in defense of their religiously charged football program. It's not surprising that many students would reflexively support both their coaches and their personal religious beliefs, nor should we expect teens to understand the nuances of constitutional law. What is troubling, however, is how Collins, rather than standing as a mature voice of reason and responsible leadership, seemed more interested in escalating the situation with anti-atheist venom. He even called the AHA letter “utterly disgusting.” Nice words from a man who stands as a Christian chaplain in the Air Force Reserves.
In a radio interview on the day after the AHA letter broke, the Hall County school superintendent, WIll Schofield, wondered aloud why the complaining party didn’t approach the school administration about excessive religion in the football program before turning to the AHA. Sounding calm and diplomatic, Schofield said all students should feel free to express concerns about anything they perceive as inappropriate at the school.
Such statements are encouraging, but one must wonder whether the spirit of openness and free expression is as prevalent at the high school as Schofield thinks it is. The rush of Christian students to pray on the field, for example, without any apparent consideration that the complaints might be legitimate, hardly suggests that the concerns of minorities are a big part of the school culture. Nor does the apoplectic response from the outraged Christian legislator send a signal of tolerance. Schofield shouldn't be surprised if few students would feel comfortable approaching the school administration and saying, “Hey, I’m an atheist. Can we please tone down the Christianity here?”
I would never equate the plight of atheists, even in the Bible belt, to the experience of African-Americans. But still, when we consider the vocal reaction of some political leaders to modest requests for atheist rights, we should take note that their statements are analogous to those made by their predecessors half a century ago in response to pleas for racial equality. As Collins spews his “disgust” at “a bunch of lawyers from Washington” working for the rights of “liberal atheists,” for example, his rhetoric would fit quite comfortably into the text of the infamous 1963 “Segregation Now, Segregation Forever” speech of Alabama Governor George Wallace. With frequent references to God and religion, criticism of Washington and “Harvard advocates,” and demands that southern heritage be left alone, Wallace was singing a tune that is being covered by Collins half a century later.
Of course, as Collins makes his statements today, a black man sits in the White House, and Wallace’s cries of “segregation forever” echo as embarrassing words from a bygone era. Hopefully someday there will be a general consensus that the Collins vitriol is similarly archaic. That, however, is little consolation for the atheist-humanist kids and families in his district, who cringe as the majority – urged on by their elected leader – angrily rages against the non-Christian complainers.
Coming this fall: David Niose’s new book: Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason