An Education: Challenging Bigotry in My High School and Beyond
As a high school student, Isaiah Smith challenged various church-state issues in his home state of Texas. His activism has been recognized by the Huffington Post, Dallas Voice, and TIME magazine. He is the founder of the Universal Human and Civil Rights Union (UHCRU) with plans to gain NGO status with the United Nations and work with foreign governments to fight against discrimination and genocide. The following is adapted from Smith’s speech in acceptance of the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Pioneer Award, delivered May 9, 2015, at AHA’s annual conference.
MY NAME IS ISAIAH SMITH and I am extremely proud and blissful to have received the 2015 Humanist Pioneer Award from the American Humanist Association for my participation with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center in a number of constitutional affairs. I am extremely grateful and honored to have worked with attorneys Monica Miller, David Niose, and Patrick Luff to help make sure that there is a separation of the church and the state.
I aspire to become an attorney and a politician. Harvard and Yale are the two law schools I have my eyes on, preferably Harvard University. At this moment I am a freshman at Tarrant County College. After I complete my basic coursework I am going to try to get into their nursing program. On average it takes an individual five to six years to obtain a JD degree and approximately two years to get one’s nursing license. So that means that while I am in law school I can already be making good money. I hope that sounds like a plan.
My History with the AHA
Birdville Independent School District (ISD) is based in the conservative town of Haltom City, Texas. My high school was located in a nearby town, North Richland Hills. Birdville High School is the official name of the high school that I graduated from. When I first started attending that high school I was called derogatory names by a ton of students and bullied and harassed on a daily basis. My school administration did nothing to stop the bullying and the harassment that I went through. In fact, they were deliberately indifferent to my complaints. I strongly believe that students have a right to go to school and not be in fear of being bullied, harassed, or assaulted because of the way they are.
In 2013 I was taking Spanish class at my high school. Multiple times I heard students telling me in class and throughout the school that being gay was a sin and that gays go to hell. I got fed up with those assertions, so one day I decided to bring my Bible to Spanish class to try to educate the students as to how I interpreted the biblical verses that they were using to discriminate against me. Things did not go as I had planned, so I tore up the book of Leviticus in the classroom, in front of the students who were using old biblical verses to discriminate against me. The incident occurred during class. The substitute teacher was unaware that I was tearing pages out of a Bible, however my school administration found out when a student reported it.
I was pulled into the principal’s office and I was told to stop. I agreed to stop ripping the Bible, however I specifically asked if I could carry my ripped Bible around school. I was told yes. The next day went smoothly. Then the day after I sat down at my desk in my Spanish class and I put the Bible on my desk. The assistant principal came into the classroom and motioned for me to follow him. As I entered his office he closed the door and he started to scream and yell at me. He treated me like I was a piece of trash. He asked me for my Bible and I refused. Then he reached over his desk, grabbed my Bible, and suspended me from school for three days. I was told that I could not legally carry a ripped Bible on school property.
I then sent messages to civil rights groups on Facebook requesting assistance. I messaged the American Humanist Association and was referred to AHA attorney Monica Miller. I sent her an email and then she began immediately working on my case. On October 31, 2013, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center sent my school district a four-page letter demanding the school district expunge my suspension, allow me to return to school, and return my Bible. The school district’s attorney responded, trying to defend the actions of the school district. Thankfully I had saved physical evidence to refute the school district’s claims and I made sure that I sent Ms. Miller copies of my evidence. She and I were able to send my school district another demand letter stating all of the possible laws for which the school district could be found liable. At this point the school district complied with the AHA’s demands.
While all this was going on I found it very concerning that the Birdville ISD was more concerned about my ripped Bible than they were about addressing the bullying and harassment that I was subjected to at one of their schools.
Bigoted Individuals and their Intolerance
I find it funny that individuals who love to use the Bible to discriminate against others are in violation of many Bible verses themselves. They simply pick and choose which verses they would like to follow while condemning others who don’t adhere to their particular religious ideology. I believe the Bible is a great tool for Christians to guide them spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, and physically through life. The Bible can also be used as a historical or educational piece of literature. But the Bible should never be used a weapon. No religious book should be used in that way. Some anti-gay Christians like to point to the book of Leviticus’s ban on gay sex in condemning LGBT people. Let’s take a look at some of the other things the book of Leviticus forbids:
- Planting different seeds in the same field or mixing two materials in clothing (19:19)
- Cutting one’s hair on the sides or trimming a beard (19:27)
- Priests entering a place where there’s a dead body (21:11)
- Working on the Sabbath (23:3)
- Selling land permanently (25:23)
One can intelligently conclude that these rules aren’t really thought of in our modern society. Today we have technology and legal scientific practices. We can fight disease and identify fundamental human rights. Back in ancient times individuals did not have the same knowledge, technology, or even science that we have today. Times change and as a society it appears that we are becoming less barbaric.
Countries should make sure that their penal codes and laws in general are secular. The separation of the church and the state must be absolute; the government should not favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion. All of us are different and none of us should be forced to practice a certain religious ritual or religious custom.
Bigotry Wrapped in Religious Liberty
With all of the controversy involving a person using their religion to discriminate, I would like to make this point: Bigotry wrapped in religious liberty is still bigotry. In my opinion, religion is not bad. Being religious isn’t either, however using your religion to bully, harass, torment, discriminate against, or condemn another human being on the basis of the way they are is called bigotry.
As a society we have to fight the bigotry of public officials who refuse to do their jobs based on religious grounds. In order to progress as a country into a more perfect union, we have to uphold the constitutional and international rights of all minorities because all of us have a “birth” right to recognition under the law and to be treated fairly and equally. Protesting on a sidewalk isn’t enough to fight the legalization of discrimination. It wouldn’t have forced my school district to comply with the law. Knowing your rights and flexing your rights to the fullest extent is the best way. That doesn’t mean you have a right to be mean to an individual who is unlawfully discriminating against you. It means that you will take the appropriate action for the purpose of making sure that the unlawful behavior and actions cease and desist.
I would like reiterate how honored and proud I am to have been chosen by the AHA board of directors to receive the 2015 Humanist Pioneer Award. And I want to thank the American Humanist Association for openly supporting me when I was going through very hard times at my school and for letting me know that I’m not alone.