During my time at Americans United this summer, I’ve written about some pretty depressing things. Whether it was a decision by leaders in Mount Vernon, Ill., to proclaim an official “recognize God” day renouncing supposed “spiritual attacks” on the city by non-Christians or the vandalism of atheist banners in Fort Worth, communities of minority faiths and non-faiths have felt the brunt of discrimination and persecution promoted by and emanating from the top.
Decisions like the one in the Bladensburg Cross case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a 40-foot-high Christian cross standing on public land is constitutional, or the Trump administration’s blatant misuse of the concept of religious freedom as a license to discriminate, have set disturbing precedents for the dismantling of church-state separation.
Yet, all it takes is one ray of sunshine to break through the clouds. This week saw such a ray at the peak of Lee’s Summit, Mo. Turns out, the public schoolteachers had had enough of the district’s questionable antics and decided to put their collective foot down.
As happened last year, though with much less notice and subsequent controversy, the district planned on hosting its back-to-school convocation for all district staff at a vehemently, vocally anti-LGBTQ church. Not only is the Abundant Life Church opposed to marriage equality, but it also states on its website that “homosexuality is a perversion of God’s natural order.” So, no, that doesn’t square with lead Pastor Phil Hoppers’ statement to the Kansas City Star that “We welcome everyone at Abundant Life” and “We’re not bigots.”
This year, however, the teachers weren’t having it. Instead of going along with the district’s decision, the teachers planned a clever way to protest the location of the convocation. According to the Star, they planned on wearing rainbow articles of clothing and pride-decorated accessories to show support for the LGBT community – some of whom are the very young people they teach.
One teacher posted that she already “struggle[d] with us having a district meeting at a church due to separation of church and state,” but that it was the “messages of hate being preached” that she just could not tolerate. She listed some local shops where attendees could purchase LGBTQ-friendly apparel to wear to the event and offered pride stickers to anyone who wanted one.
The teachers’ protests ultimately forced the district to move the event, but not without the district remarking through its spokeswoman that “[T]his does not diminish our gratitude to Abundant Life.” Yes, it’s disheartening that the district chose to host its program at the church and continues to praise it, or that the church espouses intolerance in the first place, but the response of the teachers is commendable and inspiring.
This is my last day with Americans United, and as I conclude my time here, there's no better moment to highlight a story of the resilience of church-state separation at the most local of levels. The strength of the separation of church and state, especially as a last resort against tyrannical theocracy, comes from the people – not our leaders, not the Founders, not even from the Constitution itself. To be sure, we’re deeply grateful every time a law professor or a U.S. senator makes an eloquent statement about the importance of the separation of church and state and its inherent value in the American way of life, but it takes someone on the ground to put that principle into practice. These teachers in Missouri did.
I am incredibly proud to have worked here this summer, fighting to keep extremist religious influence out of government policy and promoting the constitutional protection provided to people of all faiths and non-faiths in this country to practice or not however he or she chooses free from government infringement.
That is what America should strive to be: a place for all, being ourselves together.