Bully Pulpit: Religious Right Howls Over Student ‘Day Of Silence’

How are fundamentalist teens negatively affected because some of their peers choose not to speak for a day? What’s it to them?

This Friday, students all over America will choose to remain quiet in school. They’ll be participating in the Day of Silence, an annual event designed to protest the bias and bullying that often silences gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students.

The premise behind the event is simple: Students attend classes but do not speak for the entire day. The Day of Silence isn’t sponsored by the schools. It’s run by students, often through a Gay-Straight Alliance Club that many schools now have. (Ironically, these clubs exist thanks to a federal law backed by Religious Right groups, which were eager to get Christian clubs into public schools.)

Every year, Religious Right organizations throw a fit about the Day of Silence. In recent years, the American Family Association has gone as far as to implore parents to actually keep their kids home if other students in the school are taking part in the event.

That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. How are fundamentalist teens negatively affected because some of their peers choose not to speak for a day? What’s it to them?

I got curious as to how the Day of Silence plays out on the ground, so last night I asked my daughter, a high school senior who has participated in the project in the past and plans to do so this year, to explain to me how it works in her school.

Claire said it’s very simple. At the start of the day, students who want to remain silent get a sticker from the Gay-Straight Alliance and wear it all day. This lets fellow students and teachers know that that this student is taking part and won’t be speaking.

It’s up to each teacher to decide how to respond to this. Claire is aware that she’s running a risk. She said her Spanish teacher in particular values class participation, and she knows that the teacher has the right to penalize students who refuse to take part in her class. Sanctions can include getting a failing grade for the day or even in-school detention.

My daughter is a good student with a strong academic record. If her participation in the Day of Silence results in a blemish on that record, so be it. I’m proud that she’s standing up for her values. Her actions reflect only on herself; they in no way threaten the rights of any conservative Christian in the school.

Meanwhile, Religious Right groups like Focus on the Family and the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) are advocating a different tack: They are calling for a “Day of Dialogue” on April 19.

The Day of Dialogue website reads, “As a high school or college student, do you wish your classmates could hear more of the story – like the truth about God’s deep love for us and what the Bible really says about His redemptive design for marriage and sexuality? Wouldn’t it be nice if a deeper and freer conversation could happen when controversial sexual topics are brought up in your school?”

Dialogue is fine. I question the value of the "dialogue" when it's simply fundamentalist students lecturing LGBT young people that they will burn in hell or that they can "pray the gay away." If such activity rises to the level of bullying and harassment it's definitely not acceptable. Groups like Focus and the ADF insist that they oppose bullying of LGBT students. In light of some recent bills we’ve seen in states that purport to address bullying and harassment in public schools but give an exemption if it’s based on “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” I’m not so sure about that.

Here’s one thing I am sure about: The public school students all over the nation who take part in the Day of Silence are doing it to make a statement (albeit silently) about an issue that concerns them. They are aware of the risk and are willing to deal with it. Their silence is no threat to any other student.

Only a true zealot would tremble in fear or sputter in rage in the face of silence.