When I was a sophomore in high school, I was part of a group project that involved writing a report about a local historical landmark and then giving a class presentation about the same topic. We decided to write about an old historical church that one of the members attended (completely legal, by the way, because we picked the topic). My portion of the oral report involved the church’s beautiful stained-glass windows. One of those windows referenced a Bible quote from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians which was written out in the inscription as 2 Corinthians.
The day of the oral report arrived, and I realized that I, not having grown up going to church, had no idea how to say “2 Corinthians” out loud. This was – and wow, does this make me feel old – pre-easily-available-Internet, so just Googling it was not an option (we had WebCrawler – it wasn’t as good). I think I knew the full title, but was I supposed to say that? Or was it “two Corinthians” (some sympathy here for our former president)? Or something else? I was already nervous about the presentation, being no great fan of public speaking, and this sent me over the edge into near panic.
I thought I could ask others in the class, as surely everyone else in my heavily religious rural east Tennessee high school would know immediately how to resolve my dilemma, but I was reluctant. It was no secret that I was one of the few nonreligious students in the school (I had been told I was going to hell more times than I could count already), but I knew it was always a risk to remind people of that fact. Still, needs must, so I gathered my courage and asked around . . . and mostly got stared at as if I had just grown a second head. Now I know that they probably didn’t know either, but at the time I just felt like the world’s biggest idiot.
Reader, I did not do well with that oral report. We were being partly graded on presentation, and that one silly little thing had me staring down at my written notes and mumbling through the content, sure that every person in the class was condemning me to the fiery pit because I didn’t know how to say 2 Corinthians (for what it’s worth, it’s called “Second Corinthians”). Even something as small as that – something completely invented in my own mind – had a profound impact on my performance and grade that day.
Now imagine the school doing that to a child on purpose.
That’s what I do every time I answer a complaint about a violation of the separation of church and state in a public school. Every time I hear about a choir teacher having the school choir perform at a church worship service. About a football coach praying with students or requiring attendance of players at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting. About a school posting the Ten Commandments or having prayers over the loudspeaker every morning. About an elementary school allowing the Gideons to sit in the hallway and give Bibles to students under the watchful gaze of teachers. These things have real and immediate impact on students, and they happen every day all over the country.
Today, Americans United is putting out a series of Know Your Rights guides for teachers, students and parents. I was the primary author of these guides, and it is my hope that the information within will prove to be a good resource for folks now and in the years to come. I hope that they will help teachers and other school officials to avoid inadvertent violations and also help teachers who are being coerced into religious practice. I hope that they will help students and parents to recognize violations and to enable them to either challenge those violations themselves or to know that they should contact Americans United to get professional assistance.
And I mostly hope that they will help to ensure that there are students out there that are never made to feel like I did that day – like they don’t belong in their own community.