In mid-March, the American Humanist Association announced that, with the help of a generous donation from members Todd and Diana Stiefel, it was offering to plan and fund a prom for the Itawamba county Agricultural High School in Mississippi. As Humanist Network News reported in a previous issue, the Itawamba County School District had made headlines by cancelling their prom rather than letting a lesbian student, Constance McMillen, bring her girlfriend as her date and wear a suit. The AHA planned to work with the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition (MSSC), which was organizing an alternative prom for Constance and of which the ACLU of Mississippi served as the fiscal sponsor.
Events then took a surprising turn last week when the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi rejected the $20,000 donation due to the AHA’s nontheistsic worldview. An ACLU spokesperson said in an e-mail to AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt, “Although we support and understand organizations like yours, the majority of Mississippians tremble in terror at the word ‘atheist.’ These Southern Baptist types are mainly what makes up the town of Fulton.”
A New York Times article covering the controversy also reported that the donation was rejected because the AHA had placed conditions on its contribution that provided difficulty for the organizers of the prom. However, the AHA pointed out that it had placed no conditions other than receiving the same level of recognition as other sponsors donating similar amounts.
The ACLU quickly apologized. Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, wrote to Speckhardt:
On behalf of the ACLU of Mississippi, I would like to offer our sincere apologies for the inappropriate e-mail you received from a member of our staff regarding your generous offer to sponsor and donate to a prom for Constance McMillen… Furthermore, please understand that the sentiments expressed in the e-mail you received from our staff member do not reflect the views of our organization in any way. The ACLU of Mississippi is a stalwart defender of freedom of belief and expression for all, and we are appreciative of your commitment to protecting those principles, as well.
Lambright also explained that the MSSC was to make the final decision about which sponsorship offers would be accepted, and that it was suggested in error that the ACLU had the final say on the matter.
The American Humanist Association accepted the apology, and reiterated its support for an alternative prom and the cause of LGBT equality. “We’re always proud to be standing on the side of love and acceptance, instead of fear and prejudice,” said Roy Speckhardt. “This could be another example of how we can be good without God. We still hope that the event will bring appreciation of the diversity within our society and encourage others to embrace it as a positive value that can continue to forge progress for all Americans.” Humanists and the AHA have long had a history of speaking up for the rights of all, and the AHA was among the first to support civil rights, equal pay for equal work and the right of same-sex couples to marry. Recently the AHA launched the LGBT Humanist Council to advance equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their families.
The current status of whether the AHA’s donation will be accepted is unknown. However, the AHA remains hopeful it can move forward with helping to put together the prom–and is gratified that its efforts are supported by Constance McMillan herself, who called Speckhardt last week after the story became national news.