“We propose America be segregated by race!” My classmate announced while his fellow group members giggled. Our World History class had been assigned to pick a U.S. institution, identify a problem it is facing and design a solution. He pulled down a map and started zoning off sections of the country. “And the gays, the gays can go here,” he said, pointing to the Atlantic Ocean. I sat horrified, watching the teacher huff out laughs and proclaim, “OK, OK!”
It was not OK. A year later I would watch this same teacher force a Latino student to do a project on immigration reform. I watched. I did not stand up. I did not protest. I did not file a discrimination report with state officials. I watched – fearful and ashamed – as these examples of blatant discrimination unfolded in the classrooms of North Bend High School.
Last month, the North Bend School District gained national recognition when the Oregon Department of Education announced it would investigate complaints against the school. Two brave, LGBTQ+ students came forward with their experiences of discrimination. These young women had been called derogatory names by the principal’s son and were scolded by the school’s resource officer when they asked for help because their “lifestyle” was against his personal religious beliefs. One of their friends was forced to read the Bible as a form of discipline. When they brought these complaints to the school district, nothing was done to address them.
These acts violated the students’ First Amendment rights and Oregon law. Under the religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment, students are protected from forced religious practices in public schools. And by refusing to assist the women because of their LGBTQ+ identities, the resource officer violated Oregon law protecting students from being treated differently due to their racial, religious, gender or sexual identity.
I personally was never forced to read the Bible while attending North Bend High School, but I did experience inappropriate comments and behaviors around religion. At the beginning of our unit on evolution, my biology teacher told our class that evolution did not fit her personal religious beliefs. She commented that she was only teaching the unit because it was required by the state and informed us that scientists could not prove that evolution “was real.”
The next year, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was removed from my Honors American Literature classroom. This unofficial book banning was not explicitly motivated by the religious identities of the parent, principal and librarian that worked together to make it happen. However, book banning in public schools has a history of being rooted in religion based-censorship.
The book banning was especially damaging to my educational experience because my peers and I had individually been given the option to read Morrison’s work or select a different book. Students who felt uncomfortable with the topics discussed in The Bluest Eye had already chosen not to read it. For the rest of us, that choice was taken away.
This communicated to me that my voice did not matter at North Bend High School; that the voices of students did not matter to the North Bend School District. That speaking up against the removal of Morrison’s work – contacting the local newspaper, writing letters to the principal, emailing the entire board of education – would get no more than a few half-hearted, emailed apologies. That the request for help of two young women experiencing LGBTQ+ discrimination would result in a lecture from a school official and their complaints being swept under a rug. That a teacher of 20+ years would allow his students to spew racism and homophobia without repercussion and that he himself could keep his position.
In Americans United’s blog post about the forced Bible readings, the organization called for public schools to be “inclusive spaces that welcome and nourish all children, regardless of their religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, race or ability.” That was not my educational experience, but it needs to be the experience of all future students.
I support building a wall of separation between church and state because public educators need to be held accountable for protecting all students regardless of their personal religious dogma. The mental, emotional and physical safety of students should not be put at risk because of the biases of school personnel. Failing to shield students from these acts results in the culture of fear, shame and disempowerment that I was educated in.
Today, I am proud to be interning at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Every day in the office I hear and see things that give me hope for the future – a future where students do not feel alienated in their classrooms on account of their personal religion or lack of one.