By Len Walker
Novia Sharkey was teaching special-education students in Waldport, Ore., when she and her husband Paul began thinking about a retirement home. Searching the internet for a place with just the right climate and surroundings that would fit their retirement income, they found it at the end of a tree-lined country lane on the Cumberland Plateau just outside of Jamestown, Tenn.
When the couple moved to the Volunteer State in 2007, Novia applied for a position in the Fentress County schools and began work at Pine Haven Elementary that fall.
In Oregon, teachers were advised against even personal religious displays that might impose some kind of influence on children. In rural Tennessee, however, she found a world of religious and cultural uniformity where principals and teachers posted the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer in offices and classrooms and led students in religious meetings at school.
It was a world where some students thought it their duty to save their teachers’ souls and where performers gave programs that distorted American history in order to make a religious declaration. It was a world where a principal could display a sign advising students that “The best vitamin for a Christian is B-1.”
Sharkey was visiting Atlanta when she learned she’d been hired. She made a hurried trip to Fentress County to attend the Pine Haven Elementary staff meeting. At the close of the session, she heard Principal Daryl Rains, a Baptist minister, ask the teachers if anyone had a prayer request.
Sharkey didn’t take it seriously, and when the call came her way, she remembers she said, “Well, I guess you can pray for my big toe.” Perhaps it had been a long day. Perhaps she’d worn an uncomfortable pair of shoes. At any rate, the principal duly included the request in his closing prayer.
It was a small incident perhaps, but an indication of problems on the way. It took five years for the trouble to come to a head and for the Sharkeys to drive to Nashville for a local chapter meeting of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. That’s where I met her in the fall of 2011 and began to follow her story.
Jamestown is a small town of just under 2,000 residents near the Kentucky line in north central Tennessee. In August of 2012, I drove there and visited the Fentress County Courthouse, an old edifice built of yellow local stone. The Ten Commandments in a brown wooden frame perhaps four feet by five feet dominated the entry way. No other documents were hung nearby to make even a pretense that it was part of a “historical” display.
I also stopped at Pine Haven Elementary to take a picture of the Ten Commandments printed on a large piece of gray slate and propped against a light post in front of the school.
At Pine Haven, Novia worked with an average of 28 to 30 students. In her first year, kids needing help in math or reading were sent to her in the resource room, but in her second year, the school went to “full inclusion,” which means that special-education teachers go into the classroom.
Novia liked the change, which is designed to give all children a similar set of classroom experiences. She was much less comfortable, however, with the interest that staff and students took in her beliefs about religion.
Just about everyone who’s new in a Southern town gets the “what church do you go to?” question. But since the Sharkeys had no church affiliation, the continued questions – posed by both teachers and students – became unwelcome over time.
It seemed to her as if the teachers were part of a religious community and that community expected her to share her personal beliefs. She listened to one retiring teacher say that it had been “so wonderful” to be in a school where teachers could openly confess Jesus Christ as their savior. Teachers formed prayer groups and displayed not only the Commandments but other religious material such as the Lord’s Prayer in their classrooms.
U.S. Supreme Court rulings have consistently barred administrators and teachers in public schools from promoting religion. What Novia saw happening at Pine Haven obviously ignored those decisions.
When she asked her local Tennessee Education Association representative about it, she was told “that’s just the way people are here.” Other teachers, most raised in the area or married into local families, apparently had no objections.
Religious discussions among students and teachers were not uncommon, but for Sharkey such conversations raised questions about how such talk might influence a child. In her third year, two seventh-grade girls brought their Bibles to her classroom after school and quoted scriptures, such as, “If you deny God before man, God will deny you.”
Although there was an innocence about their attempt, perhaps Novia sensed a note of condescension – righteous children struggling for the soul of their adult, hell-bound teacher. Certainly she understood that the religion-saturated atmosphere of the school gave the students the permission they needed to make their approach.
Sharkey continued to question herself about what, if anything, she should do, but perhaps even she was surprised at what happened next.
In late October of 2010, students gathered in the gym to hear a guest speaker that another teacher had invited. Novia left her room to join the assembly, and upon entering the gym, heard soft music of what she calls “a patriotic type.” A man dressed in a colonial costume and portraying George Washington stood with a U.S. flag draped over his arm.
As she stood listening, he recited the Pledge of Allegiance several times, stressing the phrase “one nation under God,” and telling the students that if Washington were here he would recite this Pledge.
Of course, the original Pledge was written near the end of the 19th century, almost a century after Washington’s death in 1799. The visiting speaker in 2012 brought together two elements of American history – George Washington and the current Pledge of Allegiance – to make a religious assertion.
For Novia, it was as if the students were being assured that 1+2 = 6, and she could not let it stand. Music still playing, she walked to the speaker standing in the middle of the gym floor and challenged him.
“George Washington would not have recited this pledge,” she said. “The words ‘under God’ were not put in the Pledge until the 1950s.”
She added that “George Washington was a strong advocate for the separation of church and state.”
Sharkey heard teachers and kids yell at her from the bleachers. The speaker, in turn, told her that Washington “certainly would have” said the Pledge and that church-state separation is not in the Constitution. He told her to “get her facts straight.”
Sharkey heard another teacher shout, “If George Washington were here today, he would have said it!” She left the gym and then returned, still agitated, to find the teachers “huddled in a corner,” and herself met “by some students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at me, emphasizing the phrase ‘under God’ over and over again.”
Shortly after she returned to her classroom again, two angry school employees with children in the school arrived. They told her they felt that her actions interfered with their children’s religious beliefs. They said they believed in the Bible, and they wanted to know if she did.
The school day finally over, Sharkey was called to the principal’s office and told she’d handled it all inappropriately. There are proper channels of command, she was told, forms to fill out, appropriate ways to complain and lines of authority.
While she was in the principal’s office, her husband Paul called to report an anonymous threatening message left on their home answering machine. The caller’s message was essentially the same one they would get several times over the coming months: If you don’t like the way things are here, you should get out.
Paul’s recollection is that Principal Rains listened to the recorded call, they talked over the phone and, during their conversation, the public school official asserted that no such thing as church-state separation exists.
Novia’s time at the school probably ended that afternoon, but she wasn’t really ready to walk away. It was all so unthinkable and so confounding. After the gym scene, a few students commended her for her courage; a few asked how anyone could know what George Washington might have said.
Sharkey got the silent treatment from some teachers, staff, students and people in the community. When the hostility was not silent, it was mostly verbal, although she also had the headlights of both her cars smashed in the school parking lot.
Most importantly, she felt she had to continue to defend her right to keep her views about religion to herself.
In November of 2010, Sharkey’s husband Paul wrote a letter to Principal Rains protesting the “intrusive and persistent questioning of her religious beliefs….” Her refusal to engage in religious discussion with other teachers, students or parents, Paul wrote, had made her the target “of the most uncivil, let alone unChristian, behavior she has experienced in her over twenty years of public school teaching.” He indicated that the problem might require the attention of some “higher authority.”
The Sharkeys received no reply.
The school year rocked along to its close in the spring of 2011. But when the students gathered again in August, a months-long confrontation began. The Sharkeys had decided they would no longer remain passive in the face of the school’s unconstitutional actions. They drove to Nashville to attend a meeting of the local Americans United chapter.
Chapter officials advised them to take the issue to the national organization in Washington, D.C. AU attorneys sent an email and a letter to Pine Haven Elementary at the end of September 2011, citing various Supreme Court decisions and requesting that religious postings and brochures be removed from classrooms and hallways at Pine Haven.
The school took no action in response. But word got out about the controversy, and soon community emotions were inflamed.
In its March 28, 2012, edition, the Fentress Courier reported on a “standing room only” meeting held March 22 in the courthouse in support of posting the Commandments at the elementary school. The story quotes Principal Rains as saying he chose to ignore the Americans United letter, and the school “had gone on with business as usual.”
As a result, Rains said, the school received a second Americans United letter on March 9. According to the Courier report, Rains said he feared a possible lawsuit and had asked teachers to take down their Commandments “hoping that when school was out, everything would die down and they could be put back up.”
Rains did not say so, but the likely reason “everything would die down” was that Novia had notified him she would retire at the end of the school year.
The newspaper article reports that the principal told the crowd “how proud he was of the students at Pine Haven, as many of them on March 22 had brought Bibles to school, prayed openly or had written Bible verses on themselves and stood up for what they believed in.” He noted that the AU complaints mentioned no names, but his instruction was to “hate the sin and love the sinner.”
To Novia Sharkey, the day at Pine Haven Elementary felt very different. Substituting for a teacher who had become ill, she had been doing bus duty in the mornings in the gym where students gathered before their classes.
Any gym with hundreds of students in it is a noisy place, but the cacophony that morning seemed unusually loud. Sharkey became aware that some students handed out flyers, wore t-shirts and carried crosses and placards saying “Keep the Ten Commandments” and the admonition, “If you deny God before man, God will deny you.” Some students were reading to one another from their Bibles.
Starting about 7:30, the commotion grew louder. It continued to mount until finally at about ten minutes of eight, the acting principal came to the gym. Principal Rains and other administrators were away from the school when this demonstration took place.
The acting principal told Sharkey to blow her whistle and asked the students to let Novia do her job. Sharkey then addressed the students, saying “You’re more than welcome to keep your signs, but please stay in your seats so that no one gets hurt.”
Instead of placating the students, Sharkey’s request elicited a roar of rejection, the culmination of months of heightened agitation and conflict. It was the yes of the many to her singular no.
Sharkey walked out of the gym and crossed the hall to her room where she found taped to her door a request signed by three students to keep the Commandments. She went into the room, but then decided to leave.
When Sharkey opened her door, she said she found the county’s special education director, Sandra Conatser, standing in front of her door, “basically protecting me” as the students headed down the hall.
Conatser gave Novia a choice: stay or take a paid leave of absence to the end of the school year. Sharkey left, she says, hoping her retreat would calm the students.
It wasn’t the way she’d thought she would end a 23-year teaching career. She felt awful. Conatser walked Sharkey to her car, and later Novia heard it was rumored that she left under police escort. She also heard that the student demonstration had been organized the night before at a local church. A day or two later, one prominent local citizen brought a big bouquet to her house and apologized.
The Fentress Courier included in its March 28 account a comment from Pastor Fred Allred of Faith Baptist Tabernacle “emphasizing the need for the word of God to be presented to children every day.”
The newspaper ended its story with a comment by another local citizen that the “huge turnout and the excellent information received” would put people’s minds to rest, especially when it was learned that Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right group, might be available to provide support and a legal defense.
No stones should be cast, the Courier reported the man as saying; instead, a prayer should be given for “those who persecute Christians and Christ’s name sake, because God loves those folks, whomever they may be.”
In the spring of 2012, the Tennessee legislature revised a law authorizing local governments to display historical documents. The new measure allows each city to display “in municipal public buildings and on municipal public grounds, replicas of historical documents….” The list of acceptable “historical” documents includes the Ten Commandments.
People, of course, know that when principals and teachers display the Commandments, their purpose is not to provide a history lesson but to bring Christian doctrine into public schools.
Just before I made my second trip to Jamestown, I saw a news item online reporting that Fentress County school officials had asked a local print shop to design and produce new copies of the Commandments to be placed in schools. Added to the display of the Decalogue would be the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance.
In Jamestown, after I took a picture of the Commandments in front of Pine Haven Elementary, I called Principal Rains and told him I’d interviewed Novia Sharkey and had seen the news report. I asked if the new documents had been hung and if I could meet briefly with him and photograph the display.
“No,” he said. “We’re putting all that behind us.”
I called the Fentress County Board of Education office and asked if, in fact, the principal could deny my request. I called several times to speak to County Superintendent Mike Jones. He was never available to come to the phone, but eventually someone else in the office said that, yes, the principal could.
I called Sandra Conatser to confirm some details of Novia Sharkey’s account. Conatser did say that she had been at the school, that she had offered Novia her choice and that she had walked – not escorted, she emphasized – the teacher to her car.
Conatser ended the conversation by saying, “Mrs. Sharkey was a great teacher.”
The Sharkeys told me that shortly after that March morning, they met with Superintendent Jones. They say the first question he asked them was: “Are you happy here?”
Actually, they say, they are happy and still love their house and the Cumberland Plateau.
Novia, however, has had second thoughts about her choice to leave before the end of the school year. Her view of that morning is that the religious demonstration by public school students, an event apparently encouraged and organized by local churches, came close to reaching the riot stage.
Students, she says, shouldn’t have been used in that way.
“A part of me feels like I gave up too easily by not going back and finishing up the year,” Sharkey said. “That would have allowed the children to face me and deal with it.”
If there were any students at the school sympathetic to Novia, who knows what lesson they learned as they experienced the upheaval in the Pine Haven gym that morning.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said he hopes the students were taught an important lesson about individual courage in the face of majority hostility.
“Novia Sharkey is to be commended for her brave stand on behalf of church-state separation,” said Lynn. “We must not rest until every public school honors our Constitution and welcomes all teachers and children regardless of their views about religion. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Len Walker is a former English teacher and suther of Southeast by Southwest: Village Scenes Century to Century, a book of essays. She lives in Nashville, TN, and is treasurer of the Nashville Chapter of Americans United.