When people ask me where I grew up, my typical answer is, “In a town of 3,394 people in southeast Arkansas about five miles north of the Louisiana border. Our town had one stoplight, two gas stations and 27 churches.” When people ask me what it was like growing up in a little evangelical town on the edge of the Mississippi River, my answers sound more like atheist versions of Flannery O’Connor stories – tall tales of morally flawed, racist folks living their lives under the watchful, often wrathful, eye of God.
Where I grew up there simply was no separation of church and state. In fact, I can’t remember a school day that didn’t begin with a class prayer followed by a standing rendition of the Pledge of Allegiance – or a church service when our pastor didn’t boisterously preach politics from the pulpit along with our Christian obligation to vote on behalf of the Lord.
Science was almost a swear word in my town. I remember the day my high school science teacher smugly said, and I paraphrase, “The Department of Ed says I have to teach you evolution. But I am not going to fill your heads with that kind of nonsense. We did not come from monkeys; we came directly from God’s hand.” I don’t think any of us knew this was illegal.
Annoying, definitely. But none of us raised a hand to object. A few students in the back of the class snickered when she mentioned “evolving from monkeys,” but we just moved on to the Genesis Chapter One version of the Earth’s origin for our geology lesson.
That was around 1988, before the internet changed the world. One would think, 30-plus years later, these kinds of blatant violations of religious freedom rights would be a thing of the past. Sadly, they aren’t. All across the country, citizens of little towns with more fundamentalist churches than gas stations still bow their heads during official prayers at public school football games and shake them at those poor misguided teachers who are “lost” enough to believe in and teach evolution.
Growing up and going to public school in a place like that can be lonely for a freethinker. You feel gaslighted by everyone around you. Whether directly or indirectly, your freedom to be who you are, to think freely, to love who you love is denied. Being the only person in a family or community who doesn’t believe in Christianity is muzzling. Independently speaking out against a Christian nationalist majority can be dangerous. Sometimes the only protection you have is the existence of things like our First Amendment – legal provisions that confirm you are not insane or damned for thinking independently. This is why AU’s Know Your Rights campaign and guides are so important. It’s cliché for a reason – knowledge really is power.
Americans United fights every day to educate and defend everyone’s right to believe – or not – by protecting and strengthening the wall between religion and government. The Know Your Rights guides we have shared this week are an important resource for anyone whose religious freedom rights are being violated and a lifeline to everyone who works to protect church-state separation in our public schools.
Read them. Download them. Share them. Someone somewhere will be thankful you did.
Amy Couch is digital communications manager at Americans United