November 27, 2013

Mississippi Student Wins Lawsuit Challenging Proselytizing Assemblies

This map shows the incorporated and unincorpor...
This map shows the incorporated and unincorporated areas in Rankin County, Mississippi, highlighting Flowood in red. It was created with a custom script with US Census Bureau data and modified with Inkscape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here in Mississippi, it is nearly impossible to exaggerate the manner in which evangelical fundamentalist Christianity is intertwined into the fabric of daily life. It is present everywhere and emerges in practically every conversation. It is about as central to the identity of most of the locals as anything else could be. Evidence of clear separation of church and state, on the other hand, is difficult to spot. Christian flags can be found in area courthouses, and it is not uncommon for judges to run for election by telling voters which Baptist church they attend. Egregious violations of church-state separation are the norm here. Again and again, the courts have had to step in to compel the local Christians to follow the law.

In April of 2013, we learned that Northwest Rankin High School in Flowood, MS, was being sued by the American Humanist Association after forcing students at this public high school to attend school assemblies in which a Christian video and presentation were featured for the purpose of proselytizing. The lawsuit alleged that the assemblies concluded with sectarian prayer and that school personnel physically blocked the exits to prevent their captive audience from leaving.

Not surprisingly, the case received considerable attention in the atheist blogosphere and the national news media. And also not surprisingly, it did not receive much attention here in Mississippi. It was just one more example of those pesky atheists trying to stir up trouble in much the same way those pesky civil rights workers did in the 1960s. We Mississippians cannot tolerate outside influences (it is widely assumed that any atheist in the state must have come from somewhere else) trying to change our way of life.

We would learn that one of the plaintiffs in the case was not an atheist; however, members of the news media were not terribly interested in this. They already had their narrative of atheist agitation and did not seem troubled by the fact that it was incorrect.

Fortunately, we learned earlier this week that the lawsuit was successful. Northwest Rankin High School has announced that they will comply with the law. The school district has acknowledge that these assemblies violated the First Amendment rights of the plaintiff and will pay for the cost of the suit. This is another example of secular activism succeeding in an area where it is desperately needed.

The brave Mississippi student who stepped forward may not be an atheist, but she is still a hero to whom countless Mississippians are indebted. Separation of church and state is not only good for atheists; it is good for religious persons too. We need more Christians like this plaintiff, and we need more atheists willing to do something when faced with a church-state violation.

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