We’re Doing It Wrong: Protesting Prayer in Schools

Yet again, prayer in public school is on the radar in Arkansas.

The latest news comes from Riverside School District, where the school board would rather cancel the elementary school graduation ceremony (6th grade… who does that?) than omit prayer from the ceremony. Parents, incensed that the school would rather cancel the ceremony some evil atheists threaten the place of their god in school have decided instead to organize a private graduation ceremony for “christian” students. Congratulations atheists! Now your kids are definitely subject to prejudice.

[Point of order: according to the rules of several christian denominations, children cannot accept Jesus as savior before adulthood. Having been raised in such a denomination, I find the notion of “christian” children to be reprehensible. Being an atheist just makes such notions more reprehensible.]

So, if this approach – threats of lawsuits, that is – isn’t working, what do I propose? It’s time to start boycotting the school functions where prayer happens. These boycotts need to be very public and very obvious. Let me give you an example from our Mormon friends.

Eli Herring was drafted into the NFL by the Oakland Raiders in 1995, but turned down their $1.5 million dollar contract offer because the NFL plays football on Sundays. Yep, that’s right: he took a job as a public school teacher for $22,000/ per year rather than violate the tenets of his faith.

I know what you’re thinking, you evil atheist: “What a moron! He gave up a fortune all because he believes that crap Joseph Smith told all those Mormon cultists? This just proves theists are idiots!” Well, I am glad to say you’re wrong.

What Eli Herring proved was that he was a man with principles upon which he acted. He wasn’t just talk, he did what he said he’d do. That, I suspect, has earned him a level of respect in his community that no quantity of dollars could buy him. If Eli ever needs anything from anybody, he’ll get it. If he calls Mitt Romney on the phone and says, “Mitt, I’ve got cancer and I need $1,000,000 for treatment. Can you help me?” Mitt will wire that money to him within minutes. Same goes for any number of other less-famous Mormons you might know. The guy has the respect of every one of his fellow Mormons, and that has more value that anything else one can imagine.

Compare this with a young atheist student, one Jessica Ahlquist. Ms. Ahlquist filed suit against Cranston High School West, asserting the a prayer banner hung in the school violated legal prohibitions against state sponsorship of religion. She won. Before, during, and after her suit, lots of nasty things got said about her and to her, including death threats. [One wonders at the credibility of such threats since no arrests followed. If I receive a credible death threat, I will press charges.] Some good did come of this. Many atheists (and allies?) joined forces and awarded her a monetary award for her effort. She was also invited to speak (and spoke) at the Reason Rally in Washington, DC, in 2012. This year, she was awarded the (dubious) honor of the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award. [I shouldn’t knock this: my only complaint against Hefner is his veneer of respectability. I prefer Larry Flynt’s honesty and usual integrity.] Time will tell if Ms. Ahlquist is worthy of her celebrity, but I worry that her notoriety is based not on a principled protest against religious discrimination, but on her resort to legal action.

Ms. Ahlquist is not an aberration. Gage Pulliam used the same approach against Muldrow Public School in Oklahoma. He made a call to the Freedom from Religion Foundation requesting assistance with the posting of the Ten Commandments upon the walls of the school district classrooms. FfRF threatened suit against the school. The school took down the Ten Commandments, but this approach, again, has garnered all sorts of unhappiness from christians.

Here’s how we ought handle things when we know the the school will have prayer at an assembly. When that notice is received by a parent, he needs to write a letter to the school explaining why his child will not attend the assembly. He needs to notify the school district that he will NOT take legal action against the school. He will tell his child why he’s barring attendance. He will tell any who ask why his child will not attend. He will explain that prayers are almost universally sectarian. That a phrase as simple as “…in Jesus’ name…” implies all sorts of theological content. And then he’ll wait.

Nothing further may be sparked. The school and community may continue shamelessly. But our enemies are hereafter on notice.?

We know the evil they do. We can name it. Hereafter, we shall stand apart and righteous. And one day, they will answer for their crime.

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