May 25, 2011

Lessons From the Damon Fowler Case

prayer in schoolI have devoted some time to writing about Damon Fowler, not simply because he's in Louisiana and I'm in neighboring Mississippi and feel a connection to him in that aspect. No, the reason I've continued to address Damon's brave stand to stop school-sanctioned prayer at his high school graduation and the aftermath of his actions is that I believe that this case highlights much of what is wrong with Christian privilege here in the bible belt. There are a few things about Damon's case that continue to trouble me, and I'd like to address them here.

First and foremost, it is absolutely mind-blowing that a public high school student living in the United States in 2011 would have to inform his school that they are not allowed to have prayers at their official commencement ceremony. Damon never should have been faced with such a predicament in the first place. Bastrop High School certainly should have known that organized prayer at their commencement ceremonies violated the law. The attorney they consulted was obviously aware of this and advised them appropriately.

The school was right to cancel the official prayer they had planned after Damon complained; however, it is absurd that Damon was ever in the position of having to complain. It is inexcusable that the school had been holding such prayers for years prior to Damon's complaint. This isn't the way law is supposed to work - that we are free to keep breaking it until someone asks us to stop!

Second, I was disappointed to see that the school did not do more to prevent the inappropriate prayer from being offered by a student speaker, Laci Rae Mattice. Not only were they well aware that a stunt like this was likely after what happened during the rehearsal, but they knew that the atmosphere was going to be extra tense due to the controversy.

In this case, the school should have done two things to demonstrate that they were serious about the legal issue Damon raised. They should have warned any students speaking at the ceremony ahead of time that stunts like this would result in a forfeiture of their diploma (or an equally suitable deterrent), and they should have shut off the speaker's microphone the moment it because clear what was about to happen.

Third, I am deeply troubled by the reaction Damon has faced from his parents, classmates, and many in his community. I will no longer accept the excuse, "But we're in the South," for this sort of bigotry and intolerance. Perhaps we atheists need to organize something like the freedom riders to protect atheists in these backwards places and work to educate those that live here.

Just what did Damon do to deserve being thrown out of his parents' house, threatened, harassed, etc.? He complained that his high school was breaking the law...and he was correct in making this assertion. Unbelievable!

The sad truth is that there are towns just like Bastrop, LA, all over this country. Atheists live in these towns and endure this sort of nonsense every day of their lives. We must do better.

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