Hell In Little Axe: An Oklahoma Mom's Chilling Battle With Religious Bigotry

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight a story that reminds me why I am thankful to work for Americans United and the cause of church-state separation.

Last Sunday, Dr. Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists interviewed Joann Bell on his radio show.

Dr. Prescott, a member of the Americans United Board of Trustees, invited Bell on "Religious Talk," not to discuss her work as executive director of the Oklahoma American Civil Liberties Union, but to explore her personal story. As a mother in Little Axe, Okla., Bell experienced first-hand how government-sponsored religion can destroy a community.

In 1981, Bell had just moved to Little Axe and enrolled her children in the local public school system. At that time, school officials were allowing a teacher-sponsored student group called the Son Shine Club to gather before school to pray.

Though the fundamentalist Baptist meetings were supposedly voluntary, the school buses dropped students off 30 minutes before classes started. Those who were not attending the religious meetings had to wait outside the building, sometimes in the rain or cold. The Son Shine sessions also extended into first-hour class time, Bell said.

One student told a reporter with the National Catholic Reporter in 1984, "If you wanted to be warm, you prayed."

Bell, who was very active in the Church of the Nazarene, wanted to be able to teach her children about their own religion. But her kids began questioning their beliefs based on what they heard at school. When they came home with Bibles, Bell and another parent, Lucille McCord (a member of the Church of Christ), decided it was time to take it up with the school board.

The two women were met with hostility. Bell recalled that board members told her "they did things the way they wanted to. If I didn't like it, that was my problem." Those at the meeting chanted "atheists, go home!" and one school board member handed out homemade placards to the crowd that said "Commies Go Home."

That was just the start. After contacting the ACLU and filing a lawsuit, Bell and McCord became the subjects of hatred and even violence. Bell's house was burned down by a firebomb. McCord's 12-year-old son's prize goats were slashed and mutilated with a knife. Bell was assaulted by a school cafeteria worker who smashed her head repeatedly against a car door. (School authorities praised the cafeteria worker, and she was forced to pay a $10 fine and Bell's hospital bills, community residents raised donations on the assailant's behalf.) McCord and Bell were both mailed their own obituaries.

They eventually won their case, Bell v. Little Axe Independent School District, in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals years later. But it wasn't the court battle that resonated.   Rather, it was the difficulties that their families had to endure in order to maintain their religious liberty. Their story shows why it remains so important to protect the separation of church and state.

"When I began the suit, I just wanted to stop the religious services at school, but I supported the idea of nonsectarian prayer in the classroom during school," McCord told the National Catholic Reporter. "Since I've seen what religion can do to a community, I don't support any religious observance in school."

But not everyone could learn the same lesson. While all this was going on, then-Superintendent Paul Pettigrew told the National Catholic Reporter, "The only people who have been hurt by this thing are the Bells and McCords. The school goes on. They chose to create their own hell on earth."

Pettigrew made those statements in 1984, and though that was a long time ago, there certainly are many who would still carry those sentiments today.

Fortunately, there are also many who have learned from these mistakes in our country's past and who have resolved that we won't make those mistakes again in the future. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for that.