A warning to Lebanon, Missouri: another state high school successfully sued for promoting religion

June 15, 2014 • 12:53 pm

As far as I know, ever since the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote to the Lebanon, Missouri school superintendent and school board, objecting to Lebanon High School principal Kenneth Lowery’s prayer to God at graduation, there has been no response. None, that is, except for Lowery’s two apologies, which weren’t really apologies because he said he was sorry “if he’d offended anyone.” He further said that nobody had leaned on him to produce his apologies, and since he’s a Christian and wouldn’t lie, I’ll believe him.

But by failing to give a formal response—one promising that it would stop religious proselytizing in its schools—the Lebanon School Board and its superintendent are putting their schools in danger. If they think that Lowery’s notapology was sufficient, they’re wrong. Christians they may be, and insistent on their right to pray in schools, but they’re ignoring the ultimate currency of American society: currency itself. For by ignoring the perfectly valid complaints of the FFRF, the Lebanon R3 School District is bringing itself closer to a lawsuit, one that it stands a good chance of losing. And if it loses, it will have to pay court costs, which can be substantial. When the school district of Dover, Pennsylvania ignored warnings about teaching creationism, and went to their famous trial, their defeat set back the school district over one million dollars.

Why don’t the people of Lebanon realize this? By insisting on their right to pray in public schools, a “right” that has been repeatedly overturned by the courts, they could bankrupt a school district that can’t be very wealthy to begin with. Yet most of those on the school board appear to be bankers and businessmen! Their fealty to God is distorting their thinking.

At any rate, things have gotten even closer to Lebanon. As The Friendly Atheist (Hemant Mehta) reported yesterday, another public school in Missouri, Fayette High School, was sued because one of its teachers, Gwen Pope, made announcements about Christian prayers over the school’s loudspeaker every Friday morning, apparently touting the Christian school club that she sponsored. (These announcements weren’t allowed for other clubs.)

It went further than that. As Hemant reports:

Pope’s husband Michael (who didn’t work at the school) would attend the meetings. Pope was quoted as telling her math students that “God will punish them if they are not good.” She had Christian books on her desk. She put up color flyers on her door for the meetings (another privilege no other student group at the school had). And the school allowed all of this to happen.

The American Humanist Association (AHA) brought suit with the help of a brave young lad, junior Gavin Hunt.  The school decided to settle without admitting guilt, but that still involved prohibiting announcements of religious activity over the public address system, forbidding school employees from participating in religious activities (I’m not sure what this means), and banning teachers from placing religious articles in public view.

Oh, and the Fayette School district had to fork over $41,000 in legal fees to the AHA. If there had been a trial, it would have been much more expensive!

So the lesson to Lebanon is clear: settle now, before you bankrupt your schools. The solution is easy: just follow the law and promise to stop proselytizing and praying at school events.

The lesson for Gavin Hunt was even harder. Mehta wrote to him asking how he felt about it all, and Hunt responded:

I’m no longer attending the school as a result of the harassment and I’m positive this [new] school will provide a more appropriate environment. I cannot adequately express the importance of keeping religion out of schools. I will continue advocating for a secular government and the advancement of humanity in any way that I possibly can.

Another Jessica Ahlquist! How I do admire these students who stand up for principle, knowing what it will cost them.

But I want this to be a lesson for the students of Lebanon, too. Realize that if you are brave enough to take on the school about the issue of prayer, your road may not be easy. Only you can determine where you’re comfortable making a stand.

It wouldn’t be fair to interact with these students and not let them know the consequences of asking for their First Amendment rights in a religious community.  Like honey badgers, when Christians are riled it’s not a pretty sight.

49 thoughts on “A warning to Lebanon, Missouri: another state high school successfully sued for promoting religion

      1. School districts are mandated to spend a certain amount of money in order to properly administrate their duties and teach students in mandatory subjects, but the majority of the money comes from local taxes. Each town has its own school board and the local government collects property taxes which include school taxes. Certain states collect two separate taxes. The school budget is voted on by the townspeople. A majority vote of ‘No’ usually means defunding of extracurricular activities like sports. The federal and state governments do provide some money, but I’m not sure how much and in any case most of the money is collected locally. This makes sense for several reasons. First, different parts of the country have different costs of living. To spend the exact same amount per student in rural Georgia, for example, as for New York City would be unfair to NYC students. Second, most items in the school budget that fall outside of mandatory education are optional. The federal and state governments do not require school districts to fund sports or clubs or the school paper, etc. Third, different school districts have different financial situations. Some own all their real estate and others have mortgages. Lots of other reasons to keep things local, but it does create issues like we see in Lebanon.

    1. The fact that they are funded by property taxes is one of the primary reasons I didn’t go into secondary science education.

      And I notice the local paper… there was a story about how Lowery is putting hats out to the community for about 50k for some AV equipment. I sure hope they are able to raise the funds. It would be a crying shame for them to get bled dry feeding lawyers and courts.

      What a waste that would be. Hint, hint.

      1. Yes, I know about the property taxes. I’ve spent 10 years in the US. Why kids living in poorer areas should get a lousy education completely eluded me. Funding schools based on property taxes is completely idiotic and stupid. It is a perfect tool to increase inequalities in society.

        1. I worked for an editor (many years ago, in a posh place in the US) saying, “there are no blacks going into science, do you know any good black physicists?” Of course this was nonsense, there are black physicists, but their number is small because of the way school funding in the US is still discriminatory against African American people. The reason is, of course, the way high schools are funded, based on the wealth of the local communities. I don’t know if Obama realizes this.

          1. That is insane. Education is the most important investment a nation can make.

            It should be the other way around if you are going to have it different at all. The poorest area gets the most input and it tapers off for wealthier ones.

            That is at least arguable as poor areas have a number of systemic barriers to education compared to equally resourced schools in wealthier areas.

          2. Do you honestly believe that some black children can not take certain courses in schools in the U.S. because funds are lacking in their school districts? You are completely wrong if you do. Every course mandated by the U.S. Department of Education is available to every student in the country. The funding comes from school taxes which in some states are separate line items within property tax, but school districts are required to meet federally mandated spending. If the district is too poor to collect enough money, that district gets federal funds to help meet its needs. But school spending in every town in this country comes before any other spending. The idea that children in the U.S. are deprived of a proper education is absurd. Prior to the civil rights bills passed in the 1960’s you would probably be correct, but what you’ve written here hasn’t been the case in this country in at least 50 years and in most parts of the country it’s more like 100 years.

          3. Rich school districts have up-to-date science & computer labs. They have large auditoriums, band rooms, gyms, sports fields, and even swimming pools. They attract good teachers and concerned parents. By virtue of having enough kids from affluent families (kids who outperform those born into poorer circumstances) they can offer a variety of courses & curricula (IB, AP, EFA, EFE, etc.). And of course they can pass levies for everything from building maintenance to state-of-the-art electronics.

            There’s no such thing as a level playing field.

          4. I agree. Just because the laws prohibiting book larnin’ fer (you know) doesn’t mean that the conservatives have given up the fight.

        2. Economic class distinction arrived from Europe on each ship that made port in the Americas. It has enjoyed robust health ever since. In group – out group distinctions are of paramount importance to financial elites in the United States, who labor mightily to maintain barriers against encroachment by lower orders of citizens. Occasional egalitarian movements make minor inroads in public policy creation, but a majority of the population sufficient to effect significant permanent structural improvements in across-the-board educational policies has yet to emerge. The environment in the USA for such improvements, alas, has perhaps never been worse than at present.

          1. America needs a Socialist party, each European country has one. Three parties are better than two, who just embattle each other. An absurdity one better overlooks are the regressive law proposals that pop up from the demands of Central African fugitives. We invaded them illigally, so let’s deal with them invading us.

          2. First the word, “socialist” has to come off the unofficial swear word list.

          3. Maybe we could have Civilized parties. Or Enlightened parties. Or We’re-All-In-This-Together parties…

            The Greens are just a little too…green…

        3. Yet, the Canadian school system works the same way. Schools are run by counties and funded through property taxes. The provinces will transfer funds to the poorer school districts.
          When I first moved to the U.S. I was baffled when people told me that my kids were going to a “good” school. My experience was that all schools within a province were kept to the same standards.
          I now live in a fairly wealthy county in Georgia, and it has some of the best and the worst schools in the state. I am not sure how a county can permit substandard schools to exist – except they tend to be in the poorer areas with non-white and immigrant families. So there is more going in in the U.S. than how the schools are funded.
          (A little OT, but Canada’s “national” health insurance is actually run by each province, not the federal government. The federal government has no power to force the provinces to offer health insurance, but uses transfer payments as a carrot to induce the co-operation of the provinces.)

          1. A lot of Canadians think that funding comes from property taxes because, at least in Ontario, you identify which board you belong to. This allows you to vote on your board specific trustees but does not affect your taxes. School funding is actually paid by the province as outlined here which uses a formula to distribute funding (mostly based on enrolment). It’s true that we pay for Catholic education, though Canadians get confused by the declaration of school board part and think they don’t. Nope, our tax dollars go to that corrupt institution to teach kids.

          2. Unfortunately none of the 3 main political parties in the province will touch the Catholic school board issue with a ten-foot pole.

          3. Me too. Not that our democracy stifling first past the post system helped.

          4. The Green Party has it as part of their platform bit they don’t even get media coverage. It also doesn’t help that it is in the Constitution and Catholic boards speak of it as their rights.

  1. There’s no more obvious proof of the hypocrisy and emptiness of religion than when its adherents attack those who don’t agree with them.

  2. Gavin Hunt is to be highly commended for his bravery in standing up to the Fayette School District and community. As such a knowledgable young man, he had to have been aware of the potential consequences and, acted despite them. I hope he is now in a much better school. We need many more young men and women like him. Thanks also to secular humanist organizations that back up our “Gavin Hunts” and “Jessica Ahlquists”.

  3. These Christians like to portray their opponents as stopping people from praying or practicing their religion, even kicking God out of schools.

    I think it is important to express criticism of their behavior differently than in Dr. Coyne’s post. Everyone has the right to pray in school or anywhere else for that matter.

    What is offensive in their behavior is that acting in their official capacity as government agents, they intend to force everyone to pray in their style and with their words.

    Christians will admit that no one can kick God out of anywhere, and He can hear their prayers even when only in thought. After all, that was how Jesus taught them to pray in the Sermon on the Mount. In that statement, Jesus scolded the Pharisees for hypocritically making public scenes to exhibit their piety. Lock yourself in your room, and say what is in your heart, not something repeated by rote, was what Jesus instructed them.

    1. Yes, but unfortunately the offenders do not understand the relevant finer point of constitutional law. They tend to know only what ‘everyone’ knows, which is that the constitution guarantees freedom of religious expression, so they leap to the conclusion that any prohibition of that is automatically violation of a religious right.
      What they fail to understand is that an agent of the state (like a teacher or a principal) cannot promote or inhibit the practice of religion while they are at work.

    2. It’s not for you to say what xtians do or do not think or admit.

      I judge them based on their deeds and actions and apparently their god is the most fragile and tender being in existence, who is apparently unable to handle the smallest amount of criticism and who depends on it’s slavish followers to right every perceived wrong committed against that poor, poor helpless and defenceless creature.

      xtians are absolutely obsessed with the thought of their invisible friend not being forced into every possible public occasion. No public ceremony is deemed complete without some pious xtian fraud of a shaman mumbling random bits of bronze age snuff porn with the expectation that his audience will treat his ravings as some great moral truth.

      And as for what jebus instructed them, it’s a very mixed message from some sort of morally defective madman, commanding his thralls to hate family members, kill disobedient children, destroy fig trees for not bearing fruit out of season (apparently not very bright either) and abuse animals.

  4. The Lebanon school-board members probably harbour a subconscious desire to lose a lawsuit over prayer because then they can be victims of those mean liberal atheists.

    1. You make a good point Diana. The idea of religious sacrifice is an ancient one. The whole christian faith is about sacrifice.
      In another thread we mourn the killing of an elephant for his ivory. Commenters have pointed out the high cost of Chinese nonsense but I think that the high cost is the whole point. Somehow there’s no medicinal value in dirt. It’s always the rare, costly stuff that has the real magic.
      Another huge market for ivory is in the Philippines where Catholics worship idols that somehow don’t have that holy power unless they are made from the rarest, most costly substances possible, preferable ivory.
      Somewhere in the Philippines there will be a billionaire bishop who is certain that Jesus will award him the greatest mansion in heaven because he has a Jesus carved from the last tusk of the last elephant.

  5. As I understand it, the threat of a real $ cost to Lebanon is contingent on there being a local student or parent who will go through with the lawsuit. Is that the case?

  6. On the public forum pages of the Lebanon newspaper someone opined that maybe the SCOTUS would overturn their school prayer rulings. If they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees and lose, I sure hope someone in that town will say, “god works in mysterious ways.”

    I grew up in a not dissimilar place in a different Midwestern state. I don’t have high hopes for the taxpayers of Lebanon.

      1. To some extent, yes. They will get free legal representation from, probably, the Thomas More Law Center.

        However, if the school district loses, and their insurance company had advised them not to fight, then they will be on the hook for the plaintiff’s damages and legal costs.

  7. Just passing on my respect for, and best wishes to Gavin Hunt. Hang tough, dude; truth and freedom are worth fighting for.

    1. Me too! And wait until you meet more like minds (the world is full of them). It’s only going to get better!

  8. Secular students of Lebanon: your road will not be easy, but it won’t be lonely, either. Through this you will find each other and the whole wide world of people who will support you.

    Your supporters are not even limited to non-believers! Many believers don’t want government getting its hands on their religion. Americans United for separation of church and state includes many believers: https://www.au.org/about

  9. To believe on faith that one has the most accurate idea of what God is and how He should be worshiped automatically leads to the adoption of certain attitudes: an, “It’s us v/s them” mentality; the “demonization” of anyone in opposition to, or even just noncompliance with, one’s personal beliefs (after all, they’re not obeying GOD like you are; they must REALLY be evil), and the “worship of devotion itself”, on which William James so rightly blamed fanaticism in all of its forms: praying aloud, or in groups (the bigger, the better); claiming that one’s wealth is a direct result of the depth of one’s “financial devotion” to a particular sect; the annual bloody reenactments of the crucifixion of the Philippines; the self-mutilations of the Shia Muslims and, of course, the “ultimate expression of devotion” of killing “nonbelievers” and the willingness to sacrifice one’s own life by suicide bombing (which “guarantees” a place in Paradise).

    Of course, another is the readiness to oppose societal norms or laws (secular government, through the “demonization” process, having already been deemed to be “evil”) even when severe personal loss is incurred in doing so: in this backwards, perverted thinking, the greater the loss, the greater the “martyrdom” and thus the greater demonstration of one’s devotion. I feel that this may well be the “underpinning” for the mob-psychology behind the obstinacy of the Lebanon School Board and the locals (“Ya gots ta stan’ UP fer Jeebus, else yer notta good Christian!”).

    It’s interesting that the passages in the Babble such as, “Hide your light under a bushel”, and, “Pray alone in secret” are conveniently ignored (the Muslims keep referring to Allah as, “The All-Merciful”; you’d think they’d want to emulate Allah, and maybe not kill so many people for trivial reasons)- this is because, by this point, egotism is using spirituality for its own ends: I lay much of the obstructionism, the “Our way, or no way” attitude of the TeaOP in the past few years directly at the feet of this “creeping fundamentalism” that has insinuated itself into normal political behavior (that coupled with the fact that they just can’t stand the idea of having a N****r in the White House!).

    Two wealthy men walked into the synagogue one day and they knelt down to pray- one cried out, “Oh, Lord- I am as nothing in your eyes; I am worthless- please have mercy on me”. The second man followed along the same lines: “I am no more than a speck of dust to you, oh Lord…”. A poor man dressed in rags entered the synagogue, knelt behind them, and started his own prayer: “Oh Lord, I am as nothing before you…”. One of the rich men prodded the other and whispered, “Look who thinks HE’S nothing!”

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