Editor’s Note: The names and locations have been altered to protect the identity of the author.
“Southern man better keep your head,
Don’t forget what your good book said…”
–“Southern Man,” Neil Young
My name is Marcus Smith and I am a nonbeliever. My daughters are also nonbelievers. My nonbelief is a product of my education and a lifetime of experience, and while my daughters may have followed on my path of being an atheist, it was not because of anything I taught them so much as showed them. I have always let my children make their own choices about what I felt was appropriate to their ages, and the story of how we all came out and the repercussions of being an open nonbeliever in the South is something that I believe is worth telling.
Both of my daughters were students at New Heights Middle School in Kerhaw, South Carolina. They are four years apart so they didn’t attend school at the same time, but the problems with their atheism and with open displays of religion on school property started when my older daughter Ava was a student there. It seemed that once every month or so there was a church group doing something at the school to promote their religion. It was always a Christian church, and often just the same two or three local churches.
Every time this in-school proselytization happened and I found out about it from my daughters, I would call the principal to voice my concerns and state that I didn’t think such explicitly religious activities were legal when they occurred on school grounds during the school day. I was assured every time by school staff that these activities were in fact legal.
This wasn’t the only religious activity happening at school, as at every school function there was a prayer session. I never participated in these sessions and decided just to ignore it. This went on for all three years my older daughter was there, then when my younger daughter Kendra went to North Central it started to get worse.
Kendra has always been a very open atheist and is in general a very outspoken person. She started to get bullied because she was not a Christian like most of her classmates. Children began to lay hands on her, praying over her, and some even assaulted her verbally and physically. Every time I went to the principal he would say he would handle it and talk to the students, but in reality he just wanted to placate me while letting the aggressors get away with it. Unfortunately, at first I bought into his promises to deal with the situation and let it go.
By September 2011 I could not let it ride any more. The school held a big religious rally during the school day for the sole purpose of bringing the children to Jesus. Kendra being Kendra was outspoken and said she did not want to attend as she was an atheist. She was given a choice: go to the rally or go to the in-school suspension room for the duration of the rally. To a twelve-year-old getting sent to in-school suspension is a punishment, so she ended up going to the rally. While she felt that she had been forced into going, she made it through the rally.
A few days later we went to Chicago to visit family, at which time I finally found out about the rally and what had happened. Needless to say I was absolutely livid, and upon returning home to South Carolina I started investigating the laws about this sort of thing. I called the principal and was brushed off yet again. I then went to the superintendent of the school district, who stated that he was not aware of the rally but would investigate, but that was only after I explained to him how angry I was and that I knew it was illegal. He didn’t see the big deal in it as he was and still is a Christian and said that there wasn’t really any harm in the kids participating.
I think the principal did start to understand my perspective a little bit better when I gave him an example of why it was wrong and explained to him that not everyone in the school was a Christian. Let’s say you had a “White Is Right” rally, I offered as the example. All children were to attend or go to in-school suspension. But not all the children were white. Let’s say five of those kids were black, or Asian, or Hispanic. How do you think that rally would make them feel? Would you feel that rally was appropriate to have, I asked. He then told me it was different because the rally wasn’t racial but still, he said he could kind of see my point. He then told me it would be handled. After that Kendra really started getting picked on, and teachers were also treating her badly.
I reached out to the ACLU and they contacted me half a day after I emailed them. That’s when things got better and worse. The school started to fight our legal threats but when the ACLU sued and the case was brought before a federal judge they realized they couldn’t win and agreed to a consent decree in our favor.
The consent decree prohibits the school district from including any prayers in school events including graduations and assemblies. It contains guidelines on what teachers cannot do during religious student club meetings and prohibits the reading of any scriptures during class or for homework unless for an entirely secular purpose. Other provisions include mandatory training of school employees, distribution of the decree, and attorneys’ fees.
So, we won! But that’s not where this story ends.