When a teacher began leading prayers in a public school classroom, one student stood up for church-state separation. High school student and humanist Gavin Hunt shares his story on why he sued his school to protect students’ rights.
As many of you may know, I recently filed a lawsuit with the American Humanist Association against my school for violating the First Amendment, which requires separation of church and state. I would like to take this opportunity to introduce myself and to explain my intentions and motives behind suing Fayette High School. I am Gavin Paul Thomas Hunt, (“G.H.” in the complaint), one of the plaintiffs in the case.
My aim is to improve the way in which schools operate and to reduce constitutional violations by enlightening the public on why such behavior is not to be tolerated. Elementary and high school students are particularly vulnerable to indoctrination and manipulation. In society, this can be a dangerous thing.
I’ve come to my own realizations for the simple fact that I have been exposed to both theories (belief in God and atheism), and had been, up until the time I attended Fayette, free to find out what I believe instead of being pressured by my school to adopt a particular belief system. My parents have educated me on the beliefs of the world, and let me decide for myself; this I am thankful for. I, myself, prefer to be identified as “agnostic atheist” because it’s a passive belief system. Agnostic atheism is defined as “The view of those who do not believe in the existence of any deity, but do not claim to know if a deity does or does not exist.” I believe that people can be good without a god. I don’t find the need to rely on a deity for my morals, which is why I also classify myself as a humanist.
In this lawsuit, I am challenging my school’s longstanding practice of allowing teachers to pray with students and to participate in Christian student group meetings during the school day. The way in which faith is regarded at Fayette High School is as a status symbol. To them, claiming to be a part of the religion is more important than abiding by the rules of it. If you don’t belong to that particular faith, you’ll be alienated by your peers, and possibly your teachers. This conduct is divisive, and serves no purpose other than displaying an illusory superiority. Ms. Gwen Pope, a teacher at Fayette, made her piety obvious, even during her teachings. She continually referenced her dogma, held religious meetings, and advertised Christian literature on her desk, all in an attempt of further influencing students. It’s almost as if they were already aware of illegality behind this, but decided to continue. Her actions might not be apparently faulty to those who share similar beliefs, but as for those who do not, they are offensive and condescending.
What concerns me is that many people are unable to see why the school’s actions violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The problem is that staff and faculty are endorsing religion. There are at least seven churches in the town of Fayette. School employees are free to practice their religious beliefs and attend church outside of school hours. However, when they are on campus, during school hours, they have no business endorsing or participating in these Christian devotionals. I have no dispute with the Christian community and wish to dispel any belief otherwise. Aside from this, I’m completely satisfied with the education I received from Fayette High School. I appreciate the teachers there, and I owe nothing but thanks to them for everything that they’ve done for me, but that does not change the fact that their current practices are illegal.
Initially, I had planned on remaining anonymous but soon realized that the best way to encourage other students to challenge constitutional violations was to come forward with my identity. I wouldn’t recommend that all plaintiffs reveal their identity for safety and privacy reasons, but it was the right decision for me. The staff and students found out that I was suing the school and I was soon subjected to criticism, and threats. There’s nothing you can do to avoid this type of discriminatory behavior, though there are ways that you can cope with it. You must realize that what you are doing is for a good cause, and that you aren’t the only one in this type of situation. I’m asking those that are going through this, to step forward and consider contacting the American Humanist Association.
This case is about upholding the constitutional mandate of separation of church and state and nothing more. I only want this practice be put to an end. I appreciate all of the support that I have received and encourage those who have been faced with a similar incident to take action.