Public Schools

Note to Christian Nationalists: Equal treatment of religion means all religions

  Rob Boston

Earlier this month, a group of people gathered outside of Chimneyrock Elementary School in Cordova, Tenn., marching, waving signs and chanting.

The protesters were angry because the Satanic Temple had just launched an After School Satan Club (ASSC). The irony is, the protesters are indirectly responsible for the existence of the club.

For years, Chimneyrock Elementary has allowed a Good News Club, an evangelical Christian group known for its aggressive forms of proselytism, to meet on school grounds. Presumably, many residents of Cordova wanted the Good News Club in the school. That means they must extend that same right to other religious groups – and yes, that includes the Satanic Temple. (For what it’s worth, the Temple does not worship Satan, or even believe in such a being. Its after-school club emphasizes science and reason.)

School follows the law

The organizer of the protest, Charlotte Bergmann, told a Memphis TV station, “What I want [the] school district to do is to obey the law – and allow God to take care of this because this fight is not between the school and the satanic club. This fight is between God and the satanic club, and God’s going to bring it down.”

But the thing is, the district is obeying the law. It’s a matter of equal treatment. The law is clear: If privileges are extended to one religious group, they must go to others as well.

Americans United recently intervened on behalf of another After School Satan Club, this time in Peoria, Ill. The club had been meeting in an elementary school of the Moline-Coal Valley Community Unit School District No. 40 for two years, but this fall the district denied the club permission to continue meeting, even as a Good News Club was allowed to meet there. The district cited alleged threats – all investigated and deemed to be non-credible – as a reason for denying access to the ASSC.

AU explained to the district why it was unconstitutional and discriminatory to treat the ASSC differently than the Good News Club, and I’m glad to report that AU’s intervention was successful. Yesterday, the Satanic Temple announced that its club will be returning to the school for a third year.

Equal access for all

We’ve been down this road before. Back in the early 1980s, several conservative religious groups fought to pass the Equal Access Act, a federal law that requires public secondary schools to allow students to form religious clubs that meet during non-instructional time when certain conditions are met.

At the time, Americans United warned these groups that under the act, students would be able to form a range of clubs not related to the school curriculum and some of these clubs might not be to their liking. Religious Right groups insisted they were OK with that, but when, a few years later, students began using the Equal Access Act to form Gay-Straight Alliances (now also known as Genders-Sexualities Alliances), the right-wingers hit the roof.

Gee, one might be tempted to conclude that Christian Nationalists don’t really support equal treatment after all. But the law still does, and that’s what matters.

Rather than marching and yelling, the protesters in Cordova might want to bone up on the law and what it requires: fair and equal treatment for all religions – including the ones they dislike.

Photo: Protestors outside Chimneyrock Elementary School in Cordova, Tenn. Screenshot from WMC-TV.

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