Opt-out required for school prayers? Teacher fired for 2nd time

It is against both Tennessee and U.S. law to lead public school students in prayer. But some people just won’t stop breaking the law and trying to find ways around it. Should students have to opt-out in order to be spared from teacher-led prayers?

According to WLBT news, “A Franklin County High School teacher was fired on Tuesday for leading her students in prayer in the classroom,” At first this sounds like good news, because the school board did not renew her contract because of her illegally leading prayer in school. But the news is not entirely good.

Apparently, teacher Alice Hawley had been fired “over 15 years ago”…for doing the same thing: leading prayers in class. “A few years later” she was asked back. So at least 15 years ago, she was let go because she was leading students in prayer. Then she was asked back, let’s say 10 years ago as a conservative estimate since we’re not given exact figures. That means she very well may have been leading class prayers for the past 10 years until a student or parent complained, or someone outside the school found out.

The principal was allegedly aware of what the teacher was doing, at least according to one student. “And sometimes our principle [sic: principal] comes and he’ll bow his head and he’ll pray with us.” If the principal was coming in and praying, he obviously was aware of the practice at some point before the teacher was let go; and since he actively participated in the prayers he may very well also be breaking the law, depending on the circumstances.

But in addition to subjecting some students who may be of different religious faiths or no faith at all to the teacher’s prayers, it’s the teacher’s defense that particularly irks me. One of her students said her policy was that if a student objected to the teacher praying:

“She said you can leave a letter an anonymous email, or just tell her raise your hand in class,”

So apparently, if the student is presenting the situation accurately, this teacher thinks that it’s okay if she imposes religious prayer upon her students, who are minors, so long as she tells them they can raise their hand to complain or leave an anonymous letter if they object. What she apparently doesn’t get is that she is in a position of authority, and that as a public school teacher, she is also acting as a representative of the government. She is not allowed to advocate religion. For her to say that the default is prayer and that you have to complain to stop it, when most or all of your other classmates support the prayer, is clearly a violation and an undue burden to put on a minor.

The video shows several students with shirts or writing on their arms saying “I broke the rule, I prayed in school” in support of their now-fired teacher and her prayers. What happens if a kid does not wear such a shirt, or does not actively support their teacher? Will they be singled out overtly or subtly and treated differently?

Teachers and other people hired by the state or federal government should not be forcing religion on anyone, especially not children. Children should not be forced to protest in order for the law to be upheld; the adults should be doing this on their own. I am glad the teacher got fired, but appalled that she was rehired in the first place, that this was the second time she had to be fired for the same thing, that the principal appears to have known about such prayers and even participated in them, and that her leaving has now further brought students into the fray. Hopefully whoever is hired to replace Hawley will start off their tenure by setting a good example for their students: respect for both students’ rights and the law by not leading classes in prayer.

This is why I blog about religion

Sometimes I wonder why I bother blogging about religion and atheism. Does it really matter if I read and talk about religions I don’t even believe in anyway? I used to believe in God, after all, so why I don’t just let bygones be bygones, leave religion alone, and post about something a little more entertaining, like funny animal videos on YouTube! It’d be a lot cheerier, and I’m sure I’d get a lot more traffic on my blog.

Then I see something like this letter to the editor, and I remember why I blog.

This letter to the editor is why I write my blog. I saw this posted on the site of fellow atheist blogger Jason Mosler. Sure, it’d be easy to laugh this letter off as just the rantings of some religious nut. But reading it a second time, it disturbed me on a number of levels.

This is a real person, Alice, writing to a real small-town newspaper in Alaska just a few years ago (January 2007). Alice honestly thinks that:

  • People who don’t believe in God should be “kicked [out] of the country“.
  • The United States is based on the principle that you “must believe” in God.
  • You can believe in God “any way you want“, but Alice only cites mainstream Christian denominations as examples of acceptable beliefs
  • Atheists practice “evil“, although it is not explained what this means
  • Atheists are responsible for the “ruin” of America and for crime being “rampant“, even “if they have never committed a crime“.

People like Alice are the reason I write this blog. Her religion has closed her mind so much that I’m sure she doesn’t even realize how hate-filled and out-of-touch with reality her letter is. For all we know, Alice is like many Christians: a kind-hearted, generous person in her day-to-day life who truly wants to do what’s right. But because her religion has taught her that people who don’t believe in her god are “evil”, all critical thought stops. She says and thinks the most horrible things because she knows she is right. Crime is up, atheists are in America, my faith says atheists are bad, so atheists are to blame and must be kicked out of society.

If Alice is like most people, she did not choose her religion growing up, but was brought up in a community that is largely if not exclusively Christian. She may never have met an open atheist in her life, but her faith has her so convinced that atheists are the cause of society’s ills that everything she sees (from currency to crime reports) serves to prove it to her. It would likely be difficult if not impossible to convince her otherwise.

We should feel sorry for Alice, for her head being filled with such hateful nonsense based on a book of fairy tales written thousands of years ago. But at the same time, I think we should also have a healthy dose of fear. We live in a society where it is still perfectly acceptable in many circles to openly hate and wish harm on people who don’t believe in God. And that is scary. There are unfortunately still people who think that Jews or Blacks, for example, should be kicked out of the country, but would a letter to the editor blaming Jews for America’s problems saying they should all be sent to Israel be published in a newspaper? Thankfully, there is very little chance of that happening. It’s no longer acceptable to openly say such things in society about most minority groups. But for some reason, it’s still okay to say just about anything you want about atheists, no matter how bigoted or unsupported it is. Many readers I’m sure said or thought “Amen” upon reading Alice’s letter.

Anti-atheist sentiment is what is “rampant” in our country these days. As long as there are people who believe that non-believers are evil and don’t deserve to be citizens, then my blog has a purpose. People need to know that religion is brainwashing good people into believing nonsense and spreading hate. There are people who strongly believe that atheists don’t deserve the same rights as everyone else, some of whom are actively trying to push their bigoted beliefs onto the country as a whole.

If even one believer sees this post and thinks about their belief, or one non-believer realizes how important it is to help change minds about atheists, then writing this blog is definitely worth it.