A recent issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine addressed two subjects that I see converging in news stories from around the country – intolerant attitudes toward students who are atheist and teachers using their positions to bully students.
Students who don't adhere to the traditional religious views of their community are met with hostility, both in the community and in their own home. Atheist teens list the many repercussions of "coming out" as a nonbeliever. Some have been kicked out of their parents’ homes. Most lose friends and find their traditional support groups viewing them with apprehension. And when these teens begin to speak up for their rights as citizens in a country where the freedom of religion is codified in the Constitution, they are met with open hostility.
Jessica Ahlquist of Rhode Island felt the scorn of her peers, teachers, media and elected officials. Jessica questioned her school administrators about a prayer mounted on the wall of her school. By mounting a Christian prayer on the wall, the school endorsed a single religious.view. Her concerns were dismissed by both the school and district. The ACLU filed suit. The courts ruled the banner should be removed.
Community retribution was harsh. Rhode Island State Rep. Peter Palumbo referred to Jessica as an "evil little thing" to the press. A local talk radio station broadcast her home address. She was the subject of harassment by other students at school. Several members of the school faculty turned a blind eye to the harassment and even expressed their own feelings of hostility toward her.
She received death threats on social networking sites like Twitter. And when a secular organization tried to send her flowers after the court decision, local florists would not take the order. She was vilified for asking the school to follow law. Teachers did not support her. Despite all this, Jessica has taken it all in stride, appearing poised and intelligent on CNN and speaking to several secular organizations about the struggles of atheist youth.
Jessica is not alone.
Take Damon Fowler, the Louisiana teen who informed his school of the law regarding official prayer at graduation ceremonies and incurred the wrath of the community.
Another student at the center of the battle for the rights of nonbelievers in school is Krystal Myers of Tennessee. Krystal, as editor of the school newspaper, wrote an editorial about the treatment of nonbelievers at her school. She questioned whether her school was violating current case law. The school’s administrators refused to print the editorial, citing the article's "potential for disruption."
In fact, Krystal merely asked the faculty and administration difficult questions about their attitudes towards students with beliefs outside of the community mainstream. This situation became an example of school administration silencing unpopular opinions rather than seizing an opportunity for learning.
These situations can be problematic for many educators. Some may believe they are compassionately steering students in what they feel is the “right” way to save their eternal soul. But they fail to realize that their good-natured guidance may cross the line and be viewed as an explicit endorsement of faith by an authority figure in a government institution.
Letting students find their own path in these matters is our obligation in the public schools. We all have views on the universal truths. A public institution is not the place to judge or endorse these views in our official capacities. Creating a society that accepts different views will help our students be prepared for full participation in our American democracy.
Coleman is a social studies, computer applications and sound recording teacher at a high school in Alabama.