A Good Friday Morning In A Secular Nation

Posted on March 25, 2016


Today is “Good Friday,” and school is closed. Later this morning, I’ll go to my classroom, where I’ll file papers, grade student work, enter grades, work on lesson plans, and make sure that I have made arrangements for the upcoming events for the various clubs for which I am an advisor.

Even though I am glad to have a day “off,” I am bothered that it is a result of Christian privilege. It doesn’t sit right with me, because I care about equality, and this is a clearly unequal policy. As a public school teacher, I teach students who worship many deities or who worship the God of the Bible in a different way–and public school is never closed for their religious holidays. This is unequal treatment, and I am uncomfortable with the imbalance. If a student who has different beliefs and misses school for a religious holiday, they will have work to make up in all their classes. This is unfair. It elevates one religious group above others in the eyes of the government, and this is unjust.

But it isn’t just elevating ONE religion above others that is an injustice here. It is elevating RELIGION above other human pursuits by closing a public school on a religious holiday.

There are plenty of other extremely important human pursuits that would seem worthy of a day off from school: election days, Presidential inaugurations, Earth Day, International Day of Peace–when there are deeply meaningful civic and social ceremonies that are far more important to our nation’s democracy and our planet’s well-being that religious ceremonies.

As the advisor the AHS Secular Student Alliance and a freethinker, I am well aware of the imbalance of power and status that is created in schools by Christian privilege. By closing public schools for religious holidays, we create a social world where people who are not Christians or who are not religious believers are silenced and made invisible. In many ways the struggle for these students to be seen and heard is parallel to that of LGBTQ students–they are constantly confronted with situations where they must sacrifice their integrity by pretending to be something they’re not or they risk being shunned, bullied, or harassed if they are open about their secular/freethinker/atheist/humanist identities.

It was about this time of year in 2014 that we read Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind in Freshman English, and the students were introduced to the roots of the anti-science mindset that they’re all too familiar with today that started with the 1925 Scopes Trial. When we finished the play, we had a lively classroom debate about the role of religious stories in science class. Two students were particularly interested in the debate. They approached me with the question, “We know we have a Bible club and the Christian athlete club at school. Can we start an atheist club?”

“Yes, you can. The Constitution guarantees you the same rights to form a student-led club,” I said, and I sent them the link to the Secular Student Alliance. The next morning, they came to see me. They said they had spent some time checking out the website and that they wanted to start the club. However, since it was so near the end of the year, and since they were Freshman students, they decided to start the club at the beginning of tenth grade. And they did. And they asked me to be the advisor. I agreed. I’m glad I did.

Secular Student Alliance is a club that celebrates humanity, reason, science, education, civic engagement, and compassion. It is a place where students can support one another as they deal with the ways they are made invisible and/or silenced in a culture of Christian privilege, from starting the school day with the public recitation of “one nation, under God,” to restrictions on what they can learn about in biology (evolution) and in health class (sex), to choir, orchestra, and band concerts that perform Christian music, to the comments from believers that condemn them to hell, to the exhaustion that comes from dealing with people who assume that everyone is a Christian. Secular Student Alliance is a place where students can discuss the fact that they will enjoy having a day off while recognizing that it is unjust to close a public school for a religious holiday. It is a place where students can learn the history of the freethinkers who came before them, and the laws and documents that insure their rights to be seen, to be heard, and to organize. It is a club that celebrates Darwin Day and Carl Sagan Day, holidays that recognize great thinkers who changed the world by greatly increasing our understanding of life on earth, earth’s place in the cosmos, and our role as citizens of it. It is a club that looks to scientist-communicators like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson as role models. It is a club that values reason, science, community and democracy.

I am proud to be a freethinker and the advisor of the Secular Student Alliance. I want to help atheist, agnostic, freethinker, and Humanist students find their allies and raise their voices as they navigate a world where we are a minority. I want them to know that although we are a minority, we have an important role to play in our community; we can’t let the dominant society silence and dismiss us. To achieve equality, we must follow the lead of Nye and Tyson and speak up for secular values. We must reach out and educate others.

While it is true that we walk in a world of Christian privilege, we can take comfort and pride in the U.S. constitution, which protects the rights of the minority. Thanks to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, the USA is NOT a “Christian nation.” People who claim that it is are either being dishonest or are simply ignorant of the U.S. Constitution. (Many who profess great love for the Constitution have never read it and are ignorant of history.) Fortunately, it is easy to learn what our nation’s founding documents say. For instance, here’s link for a great video that uses the Constitution to disprove the claim that America is a Christian nation. I’ll be sharing this video with the club members.

A day off work for a religious holiday is nice, but EQUALITY IS BETTER.  The original motto of the United States is not the 1956-era, “in God we trust.” It is “E pluribus unum,” out of many, one, from the 1782 Great Seal of the United States. On this religious holiday, I celebrate the fact that I live in a secular nation…and I hope that one day soon, we might act like one. nceyy77pi