I HEARD her, loud and clear.
December 20, 2006 7:13 AM   Subscribe

My athiestic leanings make me feel extremely unwelcome in my workplace. It's a public school. No one there even knows I'm an athiest. I need advice.

I've read the first 2-or-so chapters of Dawkins's God Delusion. In it, he talks about athiests "coming out" and how there are probably a lot of us hiding out there. I was thinking about this a lot as it relates to my life. I feel pretty much "out" and very well accepted, even by my most religioius friends. The only place where I would consider myself "in the closet," as it were, is at work. The situation there:
I work in a public, urban elementary school. It's been clear since I've gotten here (and has gotten more and more clear over the time I've spent here) that the vast majority of the staff is openly, proudly Christian. Teachers stand up and sing songs about Jesus at all-school assemblies. My colleagues frequently appeal to Jesus to help them with their jobs and assert that he's the only thing getting them through working in a difficult situation like we do. I've never really had any problem with this. I thought the songs might cross the line in a public school, but I figure teachers can sing whatever they want- nobody was forced to sing along. I didn't even get upset about there being no "Holiday" celebrations- only "Christmas" ones. We have an all-school "Christmas Program" today and last night the staff had its annual "Christmas Party." I didn't think this was exactly in line with what should happen in a public school, but given the overwhelming majority of the staff and students who consider themselves Christians, I didn't figure it worth it to quibble over semantics. And I really didn't want to get Bill O'Reilly mad at me.
But then, last night, at the "Christmas Party" (held in the school's library), as I was already thinking about how maybe I should "come out" to some of my colleagues (something I've always avoided in order not to rock the boat as a new teacher), my principal did something that I think completely crossed the line and made me feel completely unaccepted and uncomfortable.
Before we started eating, she announced that we would first have to "give thanks to the lord." I thought this was out of line, but okay. So they'll pray and I'll stare at the food. Then she continued: "And those of you who don't believe in the lord, well you can close your ears or whatever you wanna do, but you're gonna HEAR TODAY." This last part was not said in a hopeful, friendly, come to God kind of way, but had a disrespectful, nasty, judgmental tone. It was greeted with a chorus of affirmations from my colleagues. Our PE teacher then gave thanks to Jesus and we ate.
Whew... My questions:
Is it worth it to "come out" around here?
How much of this should I tolerate? I'm pretty sure protesting would solve nothing and maybe just make it worse for me around here, but can I really let a public school principal get away with saying something like this? It was incredibly insulting- even threatening- to me and surely to anyone else in the room who is a nonbeliever. My Christian girlfriend said it offended her when I related the story. Is it time to take a stand? If not now, when?
Thank you, AskMe, for your wisdom.
posted by PhatLobley to Religion & Philosophy (88 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Matthew 6:5-6: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret...."

(You could drop that off as a note, which while not outing you as an Atheist, may be more effective in toning down the God-mouthing bullshit).
posted by klangklangston at 7:17 AM on December 20, 2006 [8 favorites]


Hoo, boy. And this is a public school, you say? Never mind "coming out"; it sounds to me like it's time to call the ACLU and the EEOC and lawyer up. You've got a hostile workplace environment on your hands.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:18 AM on December 20, 2006 [3 favorites]


In other words, the issue is the inappropriate theistic yammerings, not your belief or disbelief.
posted by klangklangston at 7:18 AM on December 20, 2006


I think you've obviously considered the negatives in "coming out" to your peers but have you considered the positives?

Personally, I can't really think of how coming out to them will benefit you while it will most certainly sting. Plus you'll then be a "conversion" target for the truest of believers.
posted by Octoparrot at 7:18 AM on December 20, 2006


this is probably not very helpful, but all I can think of is: get the hell out of there, look for another school and tell them why you left. Anti-atheist mobbing.
posted by kolophon at 7:20 AM on December 20, 2006


Yeah, you could also say that doing things like that leaves you open to lawsuits, without impugning the sincerity of their belief, but as a note of caution. The ignorance I associate with that sort of trumpetted belief is one that is often cowed by reminders of concrete repurcussions, especially when delivered as a friendly aside rather than a condemnation (at least, that's been the case when working with the children's program at my housing co-op).
posted by klangklangston at 7:20 AM on December 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


Pick your battles wisely. This is not one you can win.
posted by spicynuts at 7:24 AM on December 20, 2006


From my reading of the situation, if you "come out," your probably going to lose your job. At the very least, it'll make things *very* awkward for you.

So, unless you are the lawsuiting type -- and to my eye you've certainly got grounds for a hostile workplace case -- or unless you have another job lined up, I think you should keep your mouth shut.

It feels pretty nasty to advise that, but as a devout atheist living in the reddest of red states, I have no doubts about the repercussions on your career.

Ugh, the more I read your story the more it sickens me. Here's to hoping for a more tolerant time...
posted by jacobian at 7:24 AM on December 20, 2006


I never say anything, just giggle a little at the funnier prayers. However, her last line there was totally inappropriate. I would write a letter to HR. I assume since its a public school HR is in a facility somewhere other than your school, ask to remain anon. to your school and make a complaint. Not for all the Chrismas stuff, which is hardly Christian anymore, but for the tacky tacky line.
posted by stormygrey at 7:25 AM on December 20, 2006


Let me ask you this...
Flip the situation...let's say the staff holiday party was completely secular...no acknowledgment of Jesus or religion of any sort. And then a Christian pipes up and says they are insulted by the lack of any mention or thanks to God for the holiday. Would you consider them over-sensitive trouble-makers? Would you think they should chill and learn to be more accepting of other's beliefs?

Yeah, there's supposed to be a separation between church and state. The holiday party, though, is a private function and not a direct function of public education. And, like it or not, most people in the US believe in a Christian God and, this being the traditional season of Christ's birth, you are apt to be subjected to these things.

I'm not a believer. My wife is. I run into these events all the time. I'm secure in my beliefs. So are they. It's simply not worth the trouble to throw a monkey-wrench in things simply to make a point. Not unless you want to become a pariah.

That said, I certainly DO think that last announcement about "you're gonna hear today." IS wayyyy over the top and uncalled for. And, I suspect you aren't alone in your revulsion, including others in the room who consider themselves Christians. However, when one encounters someone as evangelical as that, you accomplish absolutely nothing by calling them on it. They aren't flexible in this. In fact, they may actually be trying to goad you or others into making it an issue. It gives them an opportunity to a)witness to unbelievers and b)"out" the unbelievers.

There really is nothing positive you will accomplish by "coming out" as an atheist in a situation like this.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:28 AM on December 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


You should seriously consider the repercussions before you start rocking the boat. At a minimum, you'll be ostracized. Most likely, you'll get poor performance reviews, have your car tires slashed, be subjected to a constant stream of nasty comments, be the subject of adverse editorials in the local newspaper which will publish your home address, get death threat phone calls at 3 AM, and so on.

When you say, "I don't think public school is an appropriate place to proselytize," what they hear is: "You and your beliefs are stupid and I hate you." Your co-workers and superiors and random death-threat callers WILL NOT take this kindly.

In theory, what you are experiencing in this public school is forbidden. In practice, it is not only allowed but encouraged.

If you should decide to proceed, contact PFAW and the ACLU.
posted by jellicle at 7:29 AM on December 20, 2006


The ACLU is your friend. Give them a call, tell them your story. They shouldn't be doing that at a public school.

As far as "coming out" goes, I would recommend talking to the principal directly about the offending incident. There's no need to make a public pronouncement about your atheism, but you should confront the person who offended you directly.

Alternatively, find another school to work at. There are dozens of schools needing teachers all across the country. This place sounds like a bad fit for you. If you do decide to find another school, I would do that first, before you confront the principal or call the ACLU, so you can get a good recommendation from the principal.
posted by JDHarper at 7:30 AM on December 20, 2006


First, talk to a lawyer about what your coming out could mean for your job. Assume, as any lawyer will, a worst-case scenario possibility.

Second, consider the impact of this environment on the students who see things like you do. Not the kind of environment they can really feel comfortable learning in.

Hence, Three, talk to the lawyer about remedies, starting with written requests to the administration, and ending with you being fired and suing.

Standing up for what you believe in takes guts, a recognition that you will be making serious sacrifices, and empathy for both your opponents and those they are unwittingly trampling on, your students.
posted by ewkpates at 7:30 AM on December 20, 2006


Considering that it's the school Principal that crossed the line, it's probably best to go to the school board. I'm sure there must be a superintendent or ombudsperson or even Human Resources person that you can take your concerns to. That comment 'HEAR TODAY' sounds waaaaaaaay over the line to me, and it doesn't sound like your principle would be receptive to a discussion about its appropriateness, since he/she was the perpetrator.

Hopefully you can bring this to your principle's bosses' attention without them drawing your name into whatever happens after; I'm assuming you want to be able to keep working at the school.
posted by Kololo at 7:33 AM on December 20, 2006


I agree with spicynuts.

You have a better chance of winning the lottery than changing this workplace without some team of lawyers with superpowers, and even then it's doubtful. Either smirk and bear it, bail, or make yourself a nuisance by complaining and standing up for your rights (which is likely to just exacerbate the situation).

This is totally unfair, but trying to change this workplace so you feel comfortable I think is hoping against hope.
posted by milarepa at 7:34 AM on December 20, 2006


I'm an atheist, but not a Dawkins-style pity-the-theists sort, so take this as you will:

In your situation, I think I'd quietly go up to the principal later and just say, "I'm not a Christian, and what you said at the staff party really made me uncomfortable and hurt my feelings. "

If you want to take it a step further: "Not all the kids at this school are Christian, either, and I worry about how well they can learn if they feel like they're being judged for their beliefs by their teachers."

Also, start a log. Document the staff party incident, document other instances of overt Christianity. Record dates. Document any time you come forward with your objections, try to get the wording and the tone of your objections down accurately.

Be respectful in your dealings with others.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:35 AM on December 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the great responses. A little more pertinent information: I'm only planning on teaching until the end of this school year, then going to law school. So I'm not feeling like I desperately need to fix this or face an entire career in a hostile environment.
Also, as for talking to my principal personally, she is a completely unreasonable person in all matters, not just religious ones. Talking to her personally about anything has never ended well for me.
I might call the ACLU just to see what they say and to satisfy my curiosity, but I'm leaning towards putting up and shutting up for the next 5-6 months.
posted by PhatLobley at 7:35 AM on December 20, 2006


I think it really depends on how much you enjoy your job right now. The kind of person who would say what your principal said is not someone who believes in "live and let live". If you out yourself as an atheist, she will consider it her duty to witness to you, and so might some of the other teachers. So I wouldn't say anything unless you're ready for your workday to become an extended attempt at conversion. If you're ready to leave for another job, though, maybe call her on the inappropriateness of her comment.
posted by MsMolly at 7:35 AM on December 20, 2006


Hmm, upon further comments: Principals have supervisors. Depending on how your school district is set up, this may be the superintendent, a regional administrator, or someone else. Can you take your concerns to this person? Be respectful and non-confrontational and you'll accomplish more.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:38 AM on December 20, 2006


I'm only planning on teaching until the end of this school year, then going to law school.

I was going to say, before I read this, that to me, your choices are very clear: litigation or leave.

After reading this: tough it out, then leave.

If the environment is as you describe it, then there's very little chance that you're going to change intolerant Christians into people tolerant of non-Christian religions. Litigation could force the issue, but it's not going to change their hearts.
posted by WCityMike at 7:40 AM on December 20, 2006


You may want to contact Americans United for Separation of Church and State. They've been extremely helpful to me in the past. In a similar situation I experienced, an attorney at AU wrote an authoritative letter to the school specifying the ways in which they were violating the law (in this case, with required prayer assemblies) and advising them not to continue violating it. Because I didn't want my name connected to the letter, they left me out of it entirely.
posted by amro at 7:43 AM on December 20, 2006


Is it worth it to "come out" around here?

How will that help your be a better teacher or your kids learn more/better?

How much of this should I tolerate?

All of it until the kid's learning is hurt because of it.

but can I really let a public school principal get away with saying something like this?

Well, you COULD, actually. After all, how will this help the kids learn?

Is it time to take a stand?

No. You seem to have your own agenda, what with coming out and all. Doesn't make the strong christian current right, but do you want to take this stand for others or for yourself? I know it sucks and you shouldn't have to feel this way, but remember, no one can make you feel bad without your permission.

You're a teacher. You're there to teach kids. How will "taking a stand" help the kids learn better?


If not now, when?

When it interferes with the teaching of the children. If somthing is blocked or ignored because of religion, by all means talk to a lawyer and raise hell. But this isn't about you, the principal or religion. It's about the kids. Does this stuff you describe hurt them or their learning environment? If yes, do something. If not, let it go, you've got a enough stress.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:43 AM on December 20, 2006


Teachers stand up and sing songs about Jesus at all-school assemblies. My colleagues frequently appeal to Jesus to help them with their jobs and assert that he's the only thing getting them through working in a difficult situation like we do.

[...] "And those of you who don't believe in the lord, well you can close your ears or whatever you wanna do, but you're gonna HEAR TODAY."


I could be wrong, but all of this added together sounds very A.M.E. to me, especially that last bit. Are you in the South? And are the people you're talking about here primarily African-American?
posted by Prospero at 7:46 AM on December 20, 2006


I am a Christian pastor married to a Christian teacher, and while I believe theists have just as much right to speak their mind as atheists do, what happened to you was completely out of line, and would have made both of us really uncomfortable.

Also, speaking as a pastor, I can't begin to tell you all of the bad, bad, bad theology in what your principal did. I could go on an on...

Anyway, here in VA, teachers have a Virginia Education Association rep in each school district office who exists to be an advocate for teachers. Do you have something like that?

If this were my wife in your shoes, my advice to her would be to relate the whole story to the VEA rep and then see what your options are, because once you take something like this to the ACLU, it may be out of your hands. At least your representative/advocate/etc. could tell you what is there for you within the system first.

Good luck.
posted by 4ster at 7:46 AM on December 20, 2006


Are you in the South? And are the people you're talking about here primarily African-American?

I'm in St. Louis and I think most of my colleagues attend Baptist churches. At least those who have shared what church they attend do.
posted by PhatLobley at 7:52 AM on December 20, 2006


Your just an atheist. You don't have to fight for it, don't have to fake pray, already don't believe.

You don't have to "come out" to an apparent bunch of deluded fools.

To not believe in god is NOT a religious stance its just a fact of your life.

If you're concerned with church/state separation issues then call someone.

If you don't want to stick your neck out, then its all water off the back.
posted by Max Power at 7:57 AM on December 20, 2006


But Brandon, if this is making him uncomfortable wouldn't that be directly interfering with the teaching of the children?
posted by dead_ at 7:59 AM on December 20, 2006


The ACLU can also be a good resource in this situation. Although unless you want to be a plaintiff, they won't be able to help you legally. I worked for the ACLU in a Southern state for a couple of years, and would get plenty of complaints like yours- from parents, students, and teachers. They problems is that someone has to be willing to be a plaintiff... with all that entails, there isn't much that can be done legally.

But even if you don't want to go as far as legal action, the state office of your ACLU might be helpful in explaining your rights and options. Depending on where you are getting through might be a challenge. Some offices screen all their calls, others only do intake by mail. If you clearly state that you have an issue with a public school as an employee, they will get back to you because they are very interested in these types of cases.
posted by kimdog at 8:00 AM on December 20, 2006


If you're going to go to law school, you should definitely contact the ACLU, PFAW and/or Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Perhaps they can send a letter without naming you, as noted above. Perhaps you'll end deciding to go public. But mostly because you'll probably get good value out of discussing this situation with a lawyer for an hour or so. You'll probably find the real-life considerations when trying to enforce the law quite informative and interesting.
posted by jellicle at 8:04 AM on December 20, 2006


Devout Christians are sometimes the most inflexible group you could come across - I wouldn't count on acceptance at all of your beliefs.

It would bother the hell out of me too, but I might not say anything if I was completely outnumbered. I had to say something recently at my workplace about prayer and I work at a freaking law firm - so at least there were good policies in place.
posted by agregoli at 8:06 AM on December 20, 2006


There are a bunch of similarities in your account with the place where I work: an urban HIV clinic. Belief is VERY big for many of my colleagues, as for many of my patients. It bleeds into a lot of places I might rather, as an athiest, see secular. It seems like you've kind of made your mind up, but I'd offer three comments:

1) The part about Jesus helping folks through is very real to a lot of people. In the stress of our jobs, the hopelessness of chronic disease, low salaries and all of the attendant problems of daily life, many of my colleagues find a huge amount of solace in the church. In addition, there's a very palpable divide in the community where I work, from which many of my colleagues come, between church folks and ne'er-do-wells, making xianity a big part of self-definition. I have no interest in getting involved in that.

2) For me, I cannot speak for you, there are definite race and class issues involved. I'm a white guy, most of my colleagues are black women. My level of education is higher than most of the non-clinical staff, and my social capital is even higher than that. I'm not afraid or hesitant to address those differences, but I'm pretty aware that they would be highlighted by a conversation about religious belief. I suspect that my athieism would be dismissed as a product of my class and race (and maybe it is, what do I know).

3) As others have said, I think it's really only worth addressing this if you're going to go all the way. IF you're so disturbed that you want to get lawyers involved, then go for it, but if you just want to speak up to be recognized, I'm not sure it's going to bring any joy to either side.

Good luck.
posted by OmieWise at 8:11 AM on December 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


As a lapsed Catholic who attended twelve years of Catholic school, I'm begging you to think of the children and show them how to stand up to fundamentalist blowhards.
posted by Sara Anne at 8:11 AM on December 20, 2006


@PhatLobley--I'm asking because knowledge of the church traditionwould influence how I interpreted the statements and actions--not all evangelical strains are alike. This:

And those of you who don't believe in the lord, well you can close your ears or whatever you wanna do, but you're gonna HEAR TODAY.

could mean either "We are going to practice our religious beliefs in front of you non-believers, whether you like it or not," or "The Lord is going to convince all of you to come around to His side anyway eventually, because that's how He is," or a mixture of both. The difference is slight, but non-negligible. In the first case the speaker is actively aware of your presence in the audience and intends to injure; in the second, non-believers in general are a sort of abstract concept, and the principal assumed that since all people she deals with on a daily basis are Christians (which is likely the case), then what she said wouldn't offend. Sort of like the way I found myself regularly slagging off Republicans when I was a grad student at a liberal university--all the people I met were Democrats anyway, or even farther left than that, right? Except for that Republican I shared an office with, who came out to me after I knew her for a year and a half.

Not that what she said isn't bad theology (it is), and not that Brandon Blatcher's answer isn't the best (it is), but it might be the case that the disrespect of your religious stance wasn't born out of active malice. That said, I'm not certain that coming out would do any good here--certainly, it's good for believers who don't know it to learn that non-believers can be just as morally upstanding and generally good as believers, but you have to pick your battles.
posted by Prospero at 8:15 AM on December 20, 2006


Re: thinking of the children, I'm not sure that eliminates the responsibility to do what you think is right. Even if it doesn't help the children, or will possibly degrade their education in some tangential way. I've known teachers of all sorts (including mom, hi!) and the average viewpoint from the inside is that teaching is, actually, a job. If PhatLobley decides that coming out as an atheist is the right thing to do, he or she doesn't have to relate that to saving the children any more than my coming out as a gay at work has to improve the quality of the material we publish.
posted by Doctor Barnett at 8:18 AM on December 20, 2006


Flip the situation...let's say the staff holiday party was completely secular...no acknowledgment of Jesus or religion of any sort. And then a Christian pipes up and says they are insulted by the lack of any mention or thanks to God for the holiday. Would you consider them over-sensitive trouble-makers?

You can't compare a lack of statement to a statement, though. The equivalent would be a staff holiday party where the principal said something like "since we all know Jesus is a false mythology - and anyone who doesn't know that yet is gonna HEAR IT tonight - let's meditate on the uncreated beauty of nature and the capacity of humanity". The neutral approach would be some kind of moment of silence where each person can think or not-think their own thing.

I like the Matthew 6:5 suggestion, but agree it's unlikely to make an actual difference. I generally just reinterpret stuff in my own head (everything's a metaphor), or get into sort of meta-theological thoughts about how the pain & beauty of life is so intense that it leads people to adopt such weird mythologies so fervently, which is painful & beautiful in its own way. I used to confront people more often, but after a few medical scares & family deaths etc, I now often feel like it's unnecessarily mean. If they find strength & joy in it, let 'em have it. No shame using a crutch when life keeps breaking your legs.
posted by mdn at 8:28 AM on December 20, 2006 [2 favorites]


I'm a fellow Atheist, but whenever discussions like this come up, I like to substitute some other religion for Christianity and see how the comments read in that light.
What would you do if you were teaching in a foreign country...one where the majority follow some other religion (non-Christian)? Would you "come out" as a non-believer? Would you speak out about overt showings of faith? Do all religious sentiments offend you or make you uncomfortable; or is it just Christian ones?
posted by rocket88 at 8:35 AM on December 20, 2006


Let me ask you this...
Flip the situation...let's say the staff holiday party was completely secular...no acknowledgment of Jesus or religion of any sort. And then a Christian pipes up and says they are insulted by the lack of any mention or thanks to God for the holiday. Would you consider them over-sensitive trouble-makers? Would you think they should chill and learn to be more accepting of other's beliefs?


That's completly diffrent. In this case, the guy is offended because of people's actions. In your example, the guy is offended by peoples inaction. It would be like a gay guy complaning that other guys arn't hitting on him.
posted by delmoi at 9:01 AM on December 20, 2006


Would you have to come out as an atheist? Could you address the matter as "probably not everyone here is a Christian, and there could be some Jewish/Muslim/Buddhist/WhatHaveYou children in this school who are privately offended by songs about Jesus at school?" I'd think that St. Louis is a diverse enough city to include some non-Christians in the mix. That might address the overall issue without targeting yourself unneccessarily.
posted by Nathanial Hörnblowér at 9:16 AM on December 20, 2006


Phat -

As someone who is currently going into the law profession, let me give you some of the (minimal) advice I've learned in a semester:

If you think that squeemy and squirmy crappy situations like this are best served by just ducking your head and going away, perhaps law is not the best place for you to be.

It doesn't matter if you do criminal defense or tax - sometimes people are wrong and the injured people are entitled to redress in those situations. YOU ARE THE INJURED PARTY RIGHT NOW. While you may not have the financial resources or courage to fight this, many people have pointed out potential pro-bono or administrative options to get you going.

While knowing when you're beat is a great skill to have (doing cost-benefit analysis is something I pride myself on), you're in a slam-dunk situation here. You have been, over a period of time, made to feel uncomfortable by people bringing their religious viewpoints into a public forum that is designed to be completely secular - something explicitly barred by law. You should talk to an attorney, of course, but - please - do not run just because it's easier.

Easy rarely equals what's right, for what I've found.

Good luck.
posted by plaidrabbit at 9:29 AM on December 20, 2006


Pick your battles wisely. This is not one you can win.

Spicynuts is right; almost these exact words scurried across my mind as I read your question.

You know, I would like to read the story of your year 'among the believers' (sorry, V. S.) in a much more extended form. I think you should spend the year absorbing and recording as much of your experience as you can, always with a view to publication, first as a magazine article, then as a book (at least a segment on This American Life, cmon!). I would read Wolfe's Electric Kool Aid Acid Test and Thompson's Hell's Angels to get a feel for the most extreme possibilities along those lines. You may be standing too close to the blaze to entertain the thought, but I see what you are going through as at least as crucial for our time as Wolfe's and Thompson's experiences were for theirs, and I think the story is as interesting of itself.

You should under no circumstances come out to these people until near the very end, if then. I would have to hear a lot more to be sure, but what you've said so far has overtones of a cult in my ears, and there may be very little they would not do in retribution, or to protect themselves, if they knew you. Be prepared to be proselytized-- strongly. I think it could be telling that the PE teacher was most vocal after her little speech; she probably needs an enforcer, and PE teachers often fill that role even in relatively healthy schools.
posted by jamjam at 9:32 AM on December 20, 2006


While I think there are plenty of reasons to bring up your atheism, I almost completely disagree with plaidrabbit. Not only do I think your circumspection is a good idea, I think it will make you a better lawyer. If, as a lawyer, litigation becomes your primary solution, if you cannot take the time to sit back and determine whether or not you are in fact THE INJURED PARTY, then the world becomes a shittier place. There are all kinds of things in life it's better to suck up and deal with than to make a big deal out of. Lawyers should understand that better than other people.

IF you think this rises to the level of serious harrassment, then, by all means, litigate. If not, keep your mouth shut. Obviously, this is just my opinion and advise, but not litigating when it's something you can live with isn't the easier path, it's the adult one.
posted by OmieWise at 9:40 AM on December 20, 2006


If not now, when?

When the ink is dry on your next employment contract at a different employer.

Why shoot yourself in the foot because other people believe something you don't? Do you view yourself as some kind of evangelist of atheism? Is that view of yourself worth your career advancement?

Polite people won't talk about religion and politics in their professional lives; it's a good guideline to stick to, even if your co-workers don't.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:50 AM on December 20, 2006



Is it worth it to "come out" around here?

Nope. Your principal will have an immediate moral duty to move you to duties where you aren't interacting with children, at the very least.

It's also unlikely that a letter from a known librul organization will do anything other than provoke a witchhunt.

A little more pertinent information: I'm only planning on teaching until the end of this school year [...]

That isn't really enough time to teach acceptance to those around you. About the best you'll be able to do is to be an exemplary teacher, and perhaps at the end of the year when you're saying your goodbyes to the coworkers who have treated you well, say: "I don't share all of your beliefs, but I've felt very welcome here. Thank you."

Is it time to take a stand? If not now, when?
When you have roots in a community and intend to be there for the long haul.
posted by tkolar at 9:52 AM on December 20, 2006


I have to take issue with Brandon's "but what about the children!" being highlighted as the best response.

If the other teachers are treating you like this, then it's hard to imagine that the children aren't being subjected to a similar situation. It's not fair for a child who doesn't believe in Jesus to have to hear about it every day either. Beyond atheism, there are a lot of other beliefs out there and the kids in your school might belong to any of them.

I don't think a Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or other child would want to hear songs about Jesus performed at school. Especially at a young age, I can imagine it being a terribly awkward situation trying to figure out why your parents tell you one thing and then your teacher tells you another.

I don't see how letting a few loudmouthed bullies totally go against the laws of the US is in anyway best for the children. And, especially if you are planning to leave at the end of the year, then you are in a unique situation to take a stand. I imagine there are at least a few more teachers and a group of students who are at least as offended by this as you but aren't in a position to do anything about it.

I'd at least talk to the ACLU.
posted by atomly at 9:57 AM on December 20, 2006


Is it worth it to "come out" around here?

If you do, you should expect that most Christians will have extremely inaccurate pictures of your values and your actual spiritual beliefs. I would avoid doing so unless you are ready, willing and capable of having a nuanced conversation that can explain why you believe what you do, without being offensive or sounding unprepared.

How much of this should I tolerate?

If it's making you unhappy, you should find a solution either via new employment or a realistic analysis of other options. You'll do your job better if you are comfortable.

And don't forget that in addition to litigation you could pursue things like yoga and meditation as relaxation exercises, so when they start praying, you start meditating and pay them no heed.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 10:00 AM on December 20, 2006


Here's a little side note: the principal came out and made a statement that's overtly hostile to the non-Christians in the room. Presumably she either felt she was "preaching to the choir", as it were...or she has an awareness (or at least suspicion) that one or more people in the room aren't Christian. Maybe you, maybe someone else, maybe more than one.

If that's the case, then the religious aspect of it is actually kind of secondary in my view; the primary issue is that your principal was openly aggressive towards people under her management. Same thing with a principal making a similar remark about gays, or asians, or pencil-necked geeks.
posted by davejay at 10:15 AM on December 20, 2006 [1 favorite]




atomly- I understand your point completely. I marked Brandon's answer as best not because I thought that keeping my mouth shut would necessarily be best for the kids, but because it gave me a little jolt back to the reality of why I am here doing the job I am doing. Many people have made excellent points about why standing up in one form or another would ultimately benefit the children of the school. I have to think long and hard about what will be the best for the kids, and I think my decision- whatever it is- will ultimately be based on that. I think it would only be right.

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful responses. You have comforted, advised, and emboldened me. Keep 'em coming.
posted by PhatLobley at 10:30 AM on December 20, 2006


I have to second the call to protect the kids of your school. It is NOT okay for teachers to sing about Jesus in all-school assemblies. It is NOT okay to push a religious agenda on children in public school. If certain faculty feel so strongly about integrating religion into the curriculum, then they should be teaching at a private religiously-affiliated school.

To make matters worse, you are bring subjected to a hostile work environment - you are being pressured to sign on to religious beliefs that are not yours.

If it were me, I'd go to the school administration and file a complaint, asking for your name to be kept out of it. If that doesn't work, I'd call the ACLU. These people are clearly breaking the law. Don't let them get away with it. Are you sure that the parents of the school are aware that their children are hearing religious songs in all-school assemblies? As a parent, I would want to know and be grateful if you stood up for my kids.

Easy rarely equals what's right

There's not much else to add to that.
posted by Flakypastry at 10:38 AM on December 20, 2006


not litigating when it's something you can live with isn't the easier path, it's the adult one.

The ability to live with a flaw should never be the criteria for litigation or protest.

It is usually more difficult for the individuals involved to fight rather than to live with it, but said individuals tend to make life better for others.

The adult decision is to do what is right, even if it is unpopular, and even if somebody will snark at you.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 10:48 AM on December 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised the school has lasted this long in the St. Louis area with that kind of culture. STL can be religious, sure, but there are also lots of counter-culture elements. I'm imagining you're deep in South County somewhere?

As a lifelong holder of minority opinions (shoutout to Bartlett) in Christian circles, I find that there are two sorts of images you can have. The first is what a lot of people are describing here, being viewed as a self-important contrarian pariah. That's certainly possible to achieve with very little effort. Just go to the principal and tell her you were offended and you hope nothing like that happens again or you'll tell your friends at the ACLU.

The second is the image I usually shoot for -- to become a kind of interesting curiosity. See, especially in St. Louis, one of the things that causes people to fear the non-Christian (I'm not exactly an atheist, but closer to it than to any organized religion) is that they haven't met very many of them. When they undestand that while we might have very different beliefs, we're still decent people with no anti-Christian agenda, I find they adapt pretty quickly. So if you are having a heart-to-heart with your principal and tell her, "You know, I did feel a little hurt that you kind of excluded me in your prayer the other night.", then you're liable to get a different response. (Of course if she's completely unreasonable, this might backfire, but as a general strategy it's not bad.) In fact, you'll have just intoned an important lesson -- that atheists are people with feelings and can feel hurt. And sooner or later someone will tell the story, "I met an atheist the other day, and he/she wasn't such a bad person."

When the inevitable, "Don't you think we're fools for praying to something that doesn't exist?" comes up, there is an easy, non-judgmental way to deal with it. Just say that you hope people pray because they seek hope and peace, and you very much support those goals -- you just have different ways of bringing them about.
posted by ontic at 11:18 AM on December 20, 2006


As someone who does a very poor job of practicing a specific flavor of Christianity, I find these people pretty offensive. Based upon what I hear from my conservative neighbors, there is an ongoing meme that the ACLU, among others, is actively trying to strip all religious references from all public institutions. For you to bring in the ACLU will just fuel their self-righteousness and paranoia. I'm not saying you shouldn't do anything, but am wondering if there is an indirect method that might prove effective. It would almost be more amusing to come out as a Satanist and offer a prayer to Satan at lunch, after asking if you could pray too. They might not get it. Honestly, I don't know what you should do. I sometimes feel the same way as a democrat in the reddest county of the reddest state.
posted by craniac at 11:20 AM on December 20, 2006


Most of the people here are right in saying that nothing you do will change this situation. Religious belief, atheism included, is strongly powered by group support, and the idea that you'll legislate or litigate Christian fundamentalism out of the school is as unlikely as the single Christian friend mass converting everyone in the room in the flip-side scenario that was offered earlier.

However, I'm upset so many people say don't stand up for yourself because of the dangers you'll face. That, not your atheism in general, is exactly what the ACLU is for. You have the constitutional right to not be fired, harassed, attacked, or made uncomortable by being an atheist minority among a Christian majority. And if you "come out" and face that, that is when you have the right to defend yourself legally.

The fact of the matter is, albiet in a way you may not recognized, you are being bullied. You have the right not to be.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 11:20 AM on December 20, 2006 [2 favorites]


What would you do if you were teaching in a foreign country...one where the majority follow some other religion (non-Christian)? Would you "come out" as a non-believer? Would you speak out about overt showings of faith? Do all religious sentiments offend you or make you uncomfortable; or is it just Christian ones?
posted by rocket88 at 8:35 AM PST on December 20


In other words, as long as one country or culture is okay with blending government and religion, Americans living in America should be okay with blending government and religion. He's not teaching in Iran, dude.

What would I do if I were you, and I had enough dough, PhatLobley, and if it wouldn't affect law school admission/enrollment? Walk out. Just write a letter of resignation, effective immediately, and send it to the principal and the principal's superiors. To hell with them and to hell with the kids, whose parents would undoubtedly burn you alive if you initiated a lawsuit. If they want this kind of environment, let the primitives have it.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:29 AM on December 20, 2006


Brandon Blatcher: Gimme a break. Teachers are people too. He has a right not to have to deal with a hostile work environment.

PhatLobley: I really feel for you. I think you've done the right thing all the way along with your "live and let live" approach. Separation of church and state is a very important thing but people who quibble about Christmas trees and so on give the rest of us a bad name.

However, I think nearly everyone would agree that a line has been crossed. Your principal is using religion to be exclusionary and downright mean, which, ironically, is very unChristian.

Of course, that point would be totally lost on her. I was raised as a fundamentalist and giving no heed to things like respect for religious differences is built-in to certain forms of "Christianity". The church is often as much (or more of) a social entity as a spiritual one for these people so there is a lot of reinforcement for their jerky behavior. In that respect, I agree that "coming out" would probably just make your life miserable.

I think the anonymous, strongly-worded letter from the ACLU would be the way to go.
posted by Jess the Mess at 11:48 AM on December 20, 2006


As someone who is currently going into the law profession, let me give you some of the (minimal) advice I've learned in a semester:

If you think that squeemy and squirmy crappy situations like this are best served by just ducking your head and going away, perhaps law is not the best place for you to be.

It doesn't matter if you do criminal defense or tax - sometimes people are wrong and the injured people are entitled to redress in those situations. YOU ARE THE INJURED PARTY RIGHT NOW. While you may not have the financial resources or courage to fight this, many people have pointed out potential pro-bono or administrative options to get you going.

While knowing when you're beat is a great skill to have (doing cost-benefit analysis is something I pride myself on), you're in a slam-dunk situation here. You have been, over a period of time, made to feel uncomfortable by people bringing their religious viewpoints into a public forum that is designed to be completely secular - something explicitly barred by law. You should talk to an attorney, of course, but - please - do not run just because it's easier.
posted by plaidrabbit at 11:29 AM CST on December 20


This is horrible, horrible, horrible advice across the board.

To begin with, practicing lawyers know that litigation is a last resort. You don't want to get involved in a lawsuit. Many times, the best advice to clients is to just suck it up and deal with it. The costs of litigation, in terms of financial, emotional, stress, and time can far exceed the benefit in many situations.

This is one of those situations. Despite many people yelling about how this is a "clear" violation or hostile work environment, without giving you legal advice, I would say these people should not be listened to because they are wrong.

If you would feel better, talk to an attorney who specializes in this... but don't talk to someone who is an advocate (e.g., ACLU, other groups mentioned above). You will not get good advice from the Advocate. They will use you as a pawn to pursue their agendas, not your agenda. They will not have your best interest at heart.

Instead, if you feel you must look into that, talk to an independent attorney with experience in First Amendment law and get his honest assessment. Such an attorney will lay it plain for you: your expected costs vs expected reward vs. mitigating factors.

If you want to be a culture warrior, have at it. You'll make Dawkins proud.

If you want to be a sensible member of a diverse society, deal with it outside of litigation or just learn to ignore it.
posted by dios at 11:50 AM on December 20, 2006 [3 favorites]


I teach at a Missouri public university and my wife is a high school teacher. I have seen a lot of this kind of thing. We always have a benediction at our graduation ceremony, for instance, and for years it was an explicitly Christian one. Finally one student contacted the ACLU and their lawyers sent a very pointed letter to the university president, citing case law where this was illegal and asking him to send written confirmation that this would not happen again. He did, and Jesus has not come to graduation in five years.

In addition to the ACLU, are you a member of the Missouri State Teacher's Association? They might be able to help.

I really think that the morally correct thing to do here is to stand up and try to make a change, for the sake of the students. The practical thing to do here is to STFU and wait it out. As in any case where the moral and practical collide, you'll have to find the middle course that you can bear with. Good luck, I know what you are going through.
posted by LarryC at 12:14 PM on December 20, 2006


If your primary interest is what is best for the kids, I would argue that it would be quite beneficial for the students to see someone they (presumably) respect standing up for something they believe in, even if it's unpopular. What better lesson is there than showing how to stand up for your (non-)beliefs, even in a hostile, difficult, lonely environment? That takes courage, integrity, intelligence, patience, and a deep commitment to one's values and to the rule of law. As others said, it's important to stand up in a firm, polite manner--and perhaps pointing out the illegallity of it, as well as the effects on non-Christian children--not in mocking, hostile, or attacking way. Is it possible you have any other allies? Are there other atheists who were there, possibly?

I am an atheist, and in your position--especially since you are leaving and therefore have less to lose--I would stand up and speak out. Not so much about the jesus is helpful comments (which I would find annoying, but would agree you should suck up), but about your principal's forcing you to listen to prayers in a very hostile manner at a work event (possibly even on school grounds? I assume this was not at her house, after all).

Standing up here will make you a better lawyer, as others have said, and it will make you a better teacher, by setting a good example, and perhaps by pushing people to examine their beliefs and actions a little more closely. I would urge you to contact the school board, and PFAW and the ACLU for their advice. Good luck with whatever you decide.
posted by min at 12:18 PM on December 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


I really think that the morally correct thing to do here is to stand up and try to make a change, for the sake of the students.

How do you judge that the morally correct thing? How do you judge that for the sake of the students?

Assuming, ad arguendo, that every single student in the school is a Christian and every single other teacher is a Christian, why would it be the morally correct thing to do to "stand up" and change their practice? In fact, the only way for you to make it a moral thing is to assume that your moral view is superior and therefore should be imposed.... the same fault you are accusing these teachers of doing.

Moreover, it is pure poppycock to argue he would be doing anything for "the sake of the students." This is clearly a situation of him doing something for his own selfish reason; not selfless (in terms of Adam Smith's argument). No where in the question does it say that the students are being forced to pray or listen to the teachers. So to say action would be for anything other than his own personal gratification is silliness.

All that is occurring here, as best as I can tell from the question, is that the poster is made to feel different, and he therefore feels insecure. He readily admits that he is different, but he doesn't like to be made to feel that way. I can sympathize with that. But whether that is morally faulty or legally actionable is a different story.

What better lesson is there than showing how to stand up for your (non-)beliefs, even in a hostile, difficult, lonely environment?

How about the lesson that we live in a multi-cultural society, and you have to accept that other people may believe different things than you do. We have to respect the differences and not get offended when others do and say things that we personally disagree with?

This discussion would be vastly different if the responders weren't sympathetic to the atheist cause. But since they are, it makes it easy for them to suggest how *you* should stand up and fight for their cause. But as mentioned above, if the roles were reversed, and you were the lone Christian in a situation where the other teachers were always denouncing God, the advice you would be getting from a lot of the posters here would be vastly different. You should consider whether your best interest or your students is at stake in some of this advice.
posted by dios at 12:43 PM on December 20, 2006


Stick it out till the end of the year, document everything, and hand over your evidence to ACLU, the school board, teacher's association, and church/state separation organizations at the end of the year.

This kind of stuff is happening all over the country, and I really don't want the Constitution to be scrapped in favor of a theocracy.
posted by matildaben at 12:47 PM on December 20, 2006


Is it worth it to "come out" around here?

No. Or at best, only in your last semester, and only if you don't plan on living/working in the immediate area again. This will burn bridges very thoroughly.

but can I really let a public school principal get away with saying something like this?

You might look for ways to subtly inquire about the principal's and school's standing with the local superintendent and school board, and look at the makeup of the school board.

If the school board are all frothing-at-the-mouth fundamentalists and/or this principal is their darling, don't bother. You'd be handing them exactly the kind of thing to reinforce their little martyr-fantasies for another generation. If you find out that the school board has been having problems with this principal or school, on the other hand...
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:55 PM on December 20, 2006


Dios, I respectfully disagree with pretty much all of your comment.

No where in the question does it say that the students are being forced to pray or listen to the teachers.

From the question: Teachers stand up and sing songs about Jesus at all-school assemblies. To me that indicates that students are in fact being forced to listen to the teachers mention jesus.

How about the lesson that we live in a multi-cultural society, and you have to accept that other people may believe different things than you do. We have to respect the differences and not get offended when others do and say things that we personally disagree with?

Right. That is exactly what the principal is not doing.

Assuming, ad arguendo, that every single student in the school is a Christian and every single other teacher is a Christian, why would it be the morally correct thing to do to "stand up" and change their practice? In fact, the only way for you to make it a moral thing is to assume that your moral view is superior and therefore should be imposed.... the same fault you are accusing these teachers of doing.


I don't think that anyone here is saying that the teachers or students should not be Christian, or should change their religious practice. I am certainly not. What I am saying is that PhatLobley should not be forced to participate or be forced to work in a hostile work environment. Having people not make hostile remarks is not the same thing as imposing a moral view, no?

All that is occurring here, as best as I can tell from the question, is that the poster is made to feel different, and he therefore feels insecure. He readily admits that he is different, but he doesn't like to be made to feel that way. I can sympathize with that. But whether that is morally faulty or legally actionable is a different story.

I think it is a pretty safe bet that not all of the students in the school are the same...I bet there are some gay students, or non-Christian students, or perhaps a few students of some ethnic or racial group that does not match the majority in the school. So are you saying that it would be okay to make homophobic comments, or racist comments, because all it's doing is making those students feel different, and there's nothing morally or legally wrong with that? The problem here is the hostility of the principal's remark and the general environment, not that most of the other teachers are Christian.

How about the argument that if jesus is really so important to these teachers, shouldn't they be working in a Christian school? I would have no problem (well, the hostility is still pretty bad, but generally speaking) with their actions then; that would be the nature of the environment. But this is a public, secular school. Therefore, by law, religion has no place in it.
posted by min at 1:03 PM on December 20, 2006


According to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, 77% of Missourans identify themselves as Christian, while 15%, or about 1 in 7, identify as non-religious, and the rest identify as Other or are not willing to say. Since this is a public school, it's extremely probable that some of that Non-religious/Other population attends your school.

The question then becomes, is it ok that the principal and others intentionally alienate and disrespect the beliefs of 1 in 7 of their students? Even if the percentage is only half that, is 1 in 14 ok? 1 in 25? 1 in 50? If it truly is about the children, I would hope that if even one child was made to feel that way, it would be unacceptable.
posted by platinum at 1:10 PM on December 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that making yourself the token atheist is only useful if you plan to go the lead-by-example route. However, your job is not to be an atheist. Your job is to be a teacher. Your principal's job is not to be a Christian evangelist, but to be a principal. People who happen to be government officials, like people who happen to be teachers and people who happen to be principals can talk about their beliefs (political, religious, whatever) as much as they want so long as they're not doing it with the Government Official hat on. Initiating songs about Jesus in a public forum during working hours is wrong. Commenting about how Jesus helped your jump start your car this morning in the break room is not. Initiating a mandatory prayer among coworkers is wrong. The difference is when you're talking as an individual and when you're talking as an authority figure.

Whether your choose to fight or not is a very personal decision. I would suggest, though, that if you do choose to fight, that you do not do it with the atheist hat on. Afterall, non-atheist taxpayers, students and other coworkers are also being harmed in addition to atheists. Non-evangelical Christians are being harmed, as we've seen offended Christians earlier in this thread. Someone needs to stand up for all of us. I'm usually pretty personal about spirituality. The inevitable attempts to label the outsider could be answered with, "My spiritual beliefs are very personal to me and I do not wish to discuss them." Although, in my personal experience, that just gets a confused, frustrated look as a response.

That is to say, I really [heart] Matthew 6:5-6 if you don't want to go full guns. I think hypocrites deep down know that they are hypocrites. Calling them on it, in their own language, might not change how they act, but I think it will evoke some shame. At the very least, they can't call you out when you use the Matthew line, because there is no logical response. They can circle the wagons when the ACLU comes knocking. They can't call you out with Matthew 6:5-6 without exposing their own hypocrisy.

If you do "out" yourself, either full guns or tactfully amongst a small group, I would still expect and be prepared for the possibility of an escalation of conflict. The principal has already declared, in their own way, that outsiders are threats. When dealing with bullies, you either need to win with overwhelming force or stay cool as a cucumber, because, both giving in and fighting back ineffectively just reassures and reinforces in the bully the knowledge of their own power.

I would also consider the possibility that they already know that you're the outsider that needs to "HEAR IT," and that the threatening comment was directed, at least in part, to you. I, for one, know that I do not have the poker face to absorb these offenses without registering non-verbal disgust. They also know that you did not join in to the "chorus of affirmations." In fact, I'm pretty sure that's why that kind of behavior has evolved in these groups.

That is to say, "coming out" might change nothing or it might change everything. Instead of thinking about the abstract reasons to "come out," you might be better off making a list of your goals for the rest of your time in this environment and determining how "coming out" will further or hamper those goals.
posted by Skwirl at 1:20 PM on December 20, 2006


While knowing when you're beat is a great skill to have (doing cost-benefit analysis is something I pride myself on), you're in a slam-dunk situation here. You have been, over a period of time, made to feel uncomfortable by people bringing their religious viewpoints into a public forum that is designed to be completely secular - something explicitly barred by law.

You may be "going into" the legal profession, but you don't yet know the law. As of right now, PhatLobley is not an identified "victim" of anything. There is no law that would entitle him to recover personally. If his fellow teachers don't know he's an athiest, and the district is never advised that PhatLobley is uncomfortable, it's legally impossible for them to be liable for a hostile work environment because of his religious beliefs (or lack thereof). If he were to sue on his own behalf claiming that the principal and other teacher's remarks have created a hostile work environment for him, you're right that the case would be a slam dunk -- just for the other side.

There are some interesting "church-state" issues here, but they would not give PhatLobley a specific right of recovery (as opposed to some general right to enjoin further violations of the First Amendment -- rights available to you or me just as much as PhatLobley). The fact is that none of the individual teachers' personal expressions of religion are improper. They -- as U.S. citizens -- have every right to exercise their own religion and express their own beliefs. The Principal's remark is more problematic, but even that probably does not rise to the level of official state action. That's not to say it's not inappropriate (it is), but I think the people jumping up to yell "ACLU!" and "Sue the bastards!" might not know what they're talking about.
posted by pardonyou? at 1:27 PM on December 20, 2006


I am certainly not. What I am saying is that PhatLobley should not be forced to participate or be forced to work in a hostile work environment.

Where is he being forced to participate? He doesn't believe in God, so what is he participating in? He is just existing why people who do believe do what they do. If all the people wanted to eat meat and he was a vegetarian, would this be a "hostile work environment"? Would he "be forced to participate in their carnivorous ways"?

And, 'hostile work environment' has a specific legal meaning that no one here has indicated they have an awareness of. Being a vegan in a meat-eating school is not a hostile work environment. Being Amish and being opposed to all the electrical use doesn't create a hostile work environment.

It has a definition of the law, and that definition does not require that your employer "be polite, courteous or decent." As the saying goes in employment law, "hostility alone" does not create a "hostile work environment."

How is the compensation, terms, condition or privileges of his employment being negatively impacted (under those terms legal meanings) by his atheism? There is no evidence in the question that they are.

So are you saying that it would be okay to make homophobic comments, or racist comments, because all it's doing is making those students feel different, and there's nothing morally or legally wrong with that? The problem here is the hostility of the principal's remark and the general environment, not that most of the other teachers are Christian.

Of course I am not saying that. But how do you even attempt to equate a homophobic comment or racist comment to what is happening here?

Racist comment: "Black people are stupid."
Homophobic comment: "Being gay is unnatural and wrong."
What's going on here: "I am Christian, Bless you lord."

I have no doubt the guy feels uncomfortable because he is the outsider. He is different than the group. That always leads to feelings of being ostracized. But I don't see any hostility to him whatsoever.

Therefore, by law, religion has no place in it.
posted by min at 3:03 PM CST on December 20


Please cite to that law. Because I've read the Supreme Court opinions, and they apparently missed that law when they ruled.
posted by dios at 1:27 PM on December 20, 2006


Secure that acceptance into law school and then perhaps teaching your classes with a bit of an edge. If you teach civics, give assignments that force your students to really consider what it means to attend a public school and ask them if they think that the constitution is being upheld. Nevermind that this kind of stuff isn't usually taught until high school, give them a challenge and let them run with it.

It won't be too long until that generation of teachers is gone, but perhaps you can inspire a few students to critically engage the status quo .
posted by perpetualstroll at 1:41 PM on December 20, 2006


From here
GENERAL
Secretary's Letter on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools

February 7, 2003

Dear Colleague:


As part of the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), I am issuing guidance today on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools. The purpose of this guidance is to provide State educational agencies (SEAs), local educational agencies (LEAs) and the public with information on this important topic. The guidance also sets forth and explains the responsibilities of SEAs and LEAs with respect to this aspect of the NCLB Act. Most significantly, as a condition of receiving funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), an LEA must certify in writing to its SEA that it has no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools as set forth in this guidance.

The guidance clarifies the rights of students to pray in public schools. As stated in the guidance, "...the First Amendment forbids religious activity that is sponsored by the government but protects religious activity that is initiated by private individuals" such as students. Therefore, "[a]mong other things, students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour, or other noninstructional time to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities." Public schools should not be hostile to the religious rights of their students and their families.

At the same time, school officials may not "compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities." Nor may teachers, school administrators and other school employees, when acting in their official capacities as representatives of the state, encourage or discourage prayer, or participate in such activities with students.

In these challenging times, it is more important than ever to recognize the freedoms we have. I hope that this guidance can contribute to a common understanding of the meaning of the First Amendment in the public school setting. I encourage you to distribute this guidance widely in your community and to discuss its contents and importance with school administrators, teachers, parents, and students.

Sincerely,


Rod Paige


And here:

Parents are the proper agents to determine what religion, if any, their children are exposed to. Public schools have no right to usurp parental authority by imposing religion on schoolchildren. Mandatory prayer, Bible reading or other religious activities sponsored by public schools are fundamental violations of the right of conscience. Public school students have the right to pray on their own in a non-disruptive fashion, and schools may teach about religion as a part of objective instruction, but public schools must not sponsor religious worship. That job belongs to America’s houses of worship.

And from here

Teachers and administrators are prohibited from either encouraging or discouraging religious activity and from participating in such activity with students.


And one more:
Public schools themselves should not, however, be in the business of promoting particular religious beliefs or religious activities. While it is permissible for public schools to teach about religion, it is not permissible to promote particular religious beliefs. While public schools should not be leading children in prayers or religious ceremonies, they should be respectful of the religious beliefs of students. Further, public schools should protect children from being coerced by others to accept religious (or anti-religious) beliefs. Public schools should seek to create an environment conducive to learning by all students and not act as vehicles proselytizing for religious or anti-religious beliefs.

It certainly sounds to me like teachers and officials are not allowed to pray or proselytize in schools.


Where is he being forced to participate?

From the original question:
But then, last night, at the "Christmas Party" (held in the school's library), as I was already thinking about how maybe I should "come out" to some of my colleagues (something I've always avoided in order not to rock the boat as a new teacher), my principal did something that I think completely crossed the line and made me feel completely unaccepted and uncomfortable.
Before we started eating, she announced that we would first have to "give thanks to the lord." I thought this was out of line, but okay. So they'll pray and I'll stare at the food. Then she continued: "And those of you who don't believe in the lord, well you can close your ears or whatever you wanna do, but you're gonna HEAR TODAY." This last part was not said in a hopeful, friendly, come to God kind of way, but had a disrespectful, nasty, judgmental tone. It was greeted with a chorus of affirmations from my colleagues. Our PE teacher then gave thanks to Jesus and we ate.


To me, and clearly to Phat, that seems pretty hostile. It also seems pretty anti-anyone-who-doesn't-believe-in-jesus. Maybe you and I have different definitions of hostile, though. You should also consider the fact that just because YOU don't find something offensive doesn't mean it isn't offensive to someone else.
posted by min at 1:56 PM on December 20, 2006


Next time there's a meeting where prayer is invoked, ask if you could quote your favorite bible verse. Then quote them Matthew 6:5-6.

Although I imagine most would miss the sarcasm.
posted by ShooBoo at 2:05 PM on December 20, 2006


But your cited examples say that teachers should not encourage children into prayer, not that they can't engage in religious activities around each other.
posted by occhiblu at 2:06 PM on December 20, 2006


It certainly sounds to me like teachers and officials are not allowed to pray or proselytize in schools.

First off, I asked for the law, which you didn't provide because it doesn't exist, despite your statement earlier.

Second, no where in anything you cited--even the advocacy pieces which do not have the weight of law--does it say that "teachers and officials are not allowed to pray... in schools."

Third, the issue of proselytizing to students is a distinct idea which arguably runs afoul of the Fourteenth Amendment when specific actions are taken. None of which has occurred in the fact scenario listed.

You made the statement that since this is a public school, "by law, religion has no place in it." There are Supreme Court opinions on this specific area, and they never say that. Hell, even the extremely opinionated advocacy speeches don't support your statement.

To me, and clearly to Phat, that seems pretty hostile.
posted by min at 3:56 PM CST on December 20


Even if I concede that it is hostile--which is isn't--you would be well served to read up on employment law before you try to argue that there is a 'hostile work environment.' Again, "mere hostility" does not create a "hostile work environment."

I'm not going to sit here and teach employment law, but you really ought to research it for yourself. You will see that "hostility" is not enough.
posted by dios at 2:09 PM on December 20, 2006


Isn't singing songs about jesus at all-school assemblies engaging in religious activity around the children?

From the first example: "Nor may teachers, school administrators and other school employees, when acting in their official capacities as representatives of the state, encourage or discourage prayer, or participate in such activities with students."

I read this quote as saying teachers and principals shouldn't encourage prayer when they are at work/in an official capacity. In my opinion, praying at a work event held on school grounds would count as encouraging prayers in an offical capacity. IANAL, though, so perhaps that is a misread.
posted by min at 2:12 PM on December 20, 2006


Possibly (I'm not a lawyer, either), but that's not what most people in this thread have been focusing on (including your last comment).

If the songs at assembly are a problem, then it's the students who are being harmed, and maybe possibly a separation of church and state issue, since it's a public school.

If the thing at the Christmas party is the problem, then it's the poster who's being "harmed," but given that he's never told any of his co-workers that they're making him uncomfortable, he's got no ground right now to claim a hostile work environment (in exactly the same way that people being sexually harassed generally need to issue formal complaints with their supervisors/HR in order to establish not only that there's a hostile work environment, but that no one did anything about it when alerted to the problem.

So there are two separate issues, and most people in this thread seem to be conflating them. The separation of church and state thing applies just to the teachers acting in their official capacity around students, and the hostile work environment thing applies only to the poster but requires a lot more documentation and escalation than he's so far engaged in.
posted by occhiblu at 2:18 PM on December 20, 2006


Well, I took

"At the same time, school officials may not "compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities." Nor may teachers, school administrators and other school employees, when acting in their official capacities as representatives of the state, encourage or discourage prayer, or participate in such activities with students.

In these challenging times, it is more important than ever to recognize the freedoms we have. I hope that this guidance can contribute to a common understanding of the meaning of the First Amendment in the public school setting. I encourage you to distribute this guidance widely in your community and to discuss its contents and importance with school administrators, teachers, parents, and students."

from a government website on education policy to be law. Again, IANAL, so maybe I'm misunderstanding it.

In any case--I need to leave the computer now, so please don't take a lack of further response to mean I agree with any further comments.
posted by min at 2:19 PM on December 20, 2006


PhatLobley, you are:
1) Leaving your job in a few months
2) Gonna be a lawyer
3) The injured party
4) Ready to do what's right for the kids

I can't imagine a person better equipped to stand up and effect change. If you're fired, it won't ruin your life or even your career. You stand to learn the legal system inside-out, and make a name for yourself before you even take the bar. You have the best case any lawyer could hope for. And what's more - you're on the moral high ground! Your actions will improve the lives of your kids!

For a few minutes, please consider persuing this. Weigh the cost to you against the cost to the kids. And think about the next time stars will align in this way.
posted by Sfving at 2:32 PM on December 20, 2006


It seems that your various options for acting and the many facets of the situation have been well-covered but I'll just make one observation that I didn't see above.

Based upon what I know of Christianity and from the defiant tone I think that part of the principal's motivation for saying what she said is that she regards herself and other Christians as an oppressed minority, if not in that town, in wider U.S. society or at least in the community of education. Paradoxical as it may seem, she may think that what she's doing is holding her chin up in the face of repression coming from all sides. She and others might view any assertions of atheism on your part as the act of an oppressor.

Not that she'd be right or wrong in thinking that and not that it justifies or does not justify what she said, I'm just noting her state of mind.
posted by XMLicious at 2:57 PM on December 20, 2006


dios, you are wrong. Under Warnock v. Archer, which is binding in the 8th Circuit (of which Missouri is a part), the actions of the teachers and principal almost certainly constitute unconstitutional endorsement of religion. (Even if attendance at the Christmas party was optional, the fact that the school threw a Christmas party is problematic.) There have been some cases outside the 8th Circuit dealing with religious songs as well (Marchi v Board, Duncanville v. Doe) indicating that Jesus-filled assembly songs are potentially unconstitutional.

This district is opening itself up to a lawsuit, if not from PhatLobley, then from someone else. And lawsuits are crazy expensive, and every dollar that pays lawyers is one more dollar that doesn't go toward educating the kids. The least PhatLobley could do is to notify the higher-ups in the district about this so they can lay a righteous and litigation-averse smackdown on the staff of this school.

That said, PhatLobley might want to read that opinion I linked to see what happens to out atheist teachers in that part of the country. If they find out you spoiled their sectarian fun, the students, teachers, and parents alike will turn on you. Drop the dime, but do it quietly (or at least very close to the end of the year).

(I am not your lawyer, this is not legal advice.)
posted by amber_dale at 3:24 PM on December 20, 2006


I don't think your religious beliefs, or lack thereof, belong in the school any more than the Christian beliefs of other staff. So, I don't think you need to "come out" as an atheist. But I believe you should come out as someone who believes in religious freedom, and the need to keep any particular religion from being espoused by the government, the government including public schools.

Document everything, and call the ACLU. Also think about calling your union, if you are represented.

The staff Christmas party was a school-sponsored event, and the Christian theme, and particularly the offensive tone of the principal's remarks, are way out of line.
posted by theora55 at 3:41 PM on December 20, 2006


PhatLobley, you don't have to 'come out' to protest. I think you could point out that the HEAR NOW statement is crossing a line by pointing out that religious beliefs are personal, and that you found this to be overly intrusive.
posted by desuetude at 4:19 PM on December 20, 2006


Assuming, ad arguendo, that every single student in the school is a Christian

A damn silly assumption.
posted by LarryC at 4:22 PM on December 20, 2006


amber_dale, I think you might want to go and re-read Warnock before declaring dios "wrong." Specifically, I think the situation described by PhatLobley is much more akin to the Brown decision, which was distinguished in Warnock. The things that were important to the court in distinguishing Brown -- like the fact that the meetings in Brown were not mandatory, and the prayer was informal, sporadic, and spontaneous -- are all present in this situation. If PhatLobley sued and I were the district, I would probably cite Warnock to as an example of the threshold for an establishment clause violation in this context, and point out why this situation doesn't meet that threshold.
posted by pardonyou? at 8:37 PM on December 20, 2006


dios wrote: What's going on here: "I am Christian, Bless you lord."

The original poster wrote: "And those of you who don't believe in the lord, well you can close your ears or whatever you wanna do, but you're gonna HEAR TODAY." This last part was not said in a hopeful, friendly, come to God kind of way, but had a disrespectful, nasty, judgmental tone.

Once again dios is being purposefully dishonest for the purpose of contrarianism. Shocking.

Thankfully the OP is most likely to ignore the worst of the advice including both the "definitely litigate" and the "definitely do not litigate" crews.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 9:58 PM on December 20, 2006


TAPG, you've got me pegged.
posted by PhatLobley at 11:08 PM on December 20, 2006


Wow. I would not rock the boat, but I'm a fairly quiet guy, plus I live in a country where such preachy statements would raise a few eyebrows in most social gatherings. I like the first comment with the biblical quote. Used as an anonymous note it would quite possibly be effective.

Oh, and spell Atheist right, for christ's sake.
posted by tomble at 11:30 PM on December 20, 2006


pardonyou?, I agree that those aspects are more like Brown. But the school-sponsored sectarian Christmas party is a big red flag, and the Jesus songs at assemblies, depending on the context, are probably endorsement as well. Besides, dios's arguments would be equally applicable to the scenario in Warnock, and that was what I took issue with.
posted by amber_dale at 5:34 AM on December 21, 2006


Not much to add here except that, if you're at all interested in maintaining good relationships with your Christian coworkers or in understanding where they're coming from, or in being at all persuasive to them, take Dawkins with a huge, saltlick-sized grain of salt.
As a fan of Dawkins' less polemic work, and as a Christian, I can say that Dawkins' approach, which is snobbery at best, and judgementalism most of the time, is the completely wrong approach to take, just as wrong as your coworkers' nasty remarks during prayer.
So, however you apprach this, don't take cues from Dawkins. Try Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Bertrand Russell instead.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:03 PM on December 21, 2006


Unfortunately Brandon Blatcher is ignoring the concept of the workplace being a respectful place where people can ply their trade. Whether or not something hurts the children's learning is NOT the only measure of what should and should not be allowed at a school. That's like saying it's okay for the manager to sexually harass the waitresses because it doesn't affect the customers' food.
posted by scarabic at 4:20 PM on December 21, 2006


In the spirit of following up, I never ended up doing anything about anything. I just kept my mouth shut, taught my kids, and survived the rest of the school year. We prayed a few more times before we ate at staff get-togethers, asked God to banish Satan from the body of our assistant principal who had a heart attack (she came back to work quickly and is doing just fine, last I heard), and generally said our thanks to Jesus occasionally while holding hands in a circle. Not my ideal work environment, but nothing worth rocking the boat over. My principal's comment was the only one that was ever really hostile toward "athiests" (to follow up on that, I'm still horribly embarrassed) or other non-Christians. The feeling was always one of "We're all believers here," and I decided not to spoil their fun.
posted by PhatLobley at 1:29 PM on October 5, 2007


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