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.