Bullies for Jesus in Public School

Posted on April 16, 2021


In “Why Women Are Opting Out of Religion,” by Sarah Stankorb, one young woman who was raised in a Christian home explains some of her reasoning for walking away from Christianity:

Sugiuchi sees followers using their Christianity to justify being anti-gay, anti-Black, and anti-woman. George W. Bush’s rhetoric around the war on terror made her hyperaware of how Christian nationalism has been used to promote a racist ideology. “I feel like until this past year, people haven’t understood the problem we face with people who call themselves Christians,” she says.

As a public high school English teacher in a majority-Christian community, I understand the problem. Over my 25 years in the classroom, from 1994-2019, the problem grew in frequency and intensity, reaching a crescendo between the years of 2016-2019, as Trump emboldened anti-Black, misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic attacks on fellow citizens, re-characterizing them as “religious freedom,” and “free speech.”

For most of my career, religiously-motivated harassment was limited to five or fewer incidents per year, and usually took the form of students or parents inappropriately, but politely, proselytizing during class or parent-teacher conferences. One student’s parents seemed genuinely pained to tell me during our conference that unless I accepted Jesus as my savior, I’d face an afterlife of burning in hell. I responded by explaining that the reason for our meeting was their child’s development as a language-user, and we completed the conference–and the course–without incident.

Once a student remained in a Mythology course after he had agreed to the ground rules for behavior (speak of all supernatural characters as “characters;” attack ideas, not people), but after hearing a number of Creation Myths and the scientific explanation of The Big Bang Theory, he launched an angry tirade meant to show the superiority of Christian ideas through rage and personal attacks. What he demonstrated is that when a student cannot meet the behavioral expectations to respectfully engage with course content, he will be assisted in selecting a course better suited for his interests and abilities.

A few times, individual Christian students requested to read a book different from what was assigned in their Literature course, and I had no problem honoring those requests; literary features and lessons can be found in any text and are easily adaptable.

For most of my career, I designed the curriculum to allow for students to pursue their own interests and to have choice and voice in their reading and writing, so Christian students often incorporated ideas and texts from their faith traditions in their coursework, and as long as they didn’t try to convert other students, they were free to express their ideas without incident.

Once, a Christian student tried to entangle me in a “religious discrimination” case by reading his Bible when he was required to work on coursework, but an administrator reminded him that he was free to read any book during “free time” but not during instructional time, and that was the end of his baiting behavior–which he later admitted that he had done purposely.

A few students have chosen to read the Bible during Independent Reading, but finding themselves unable to complete the literary study tasks, in part because they lack the knowledge of the text that would allow them to work with the narratives in it, they quickly abandoned it in favor of books they understood and enjoyed.

However, there were members of the Christian community who seemed to believe that the god of the Bible had commanded them to target and harass me in my role as a public school teacher, because I spoke of all religion from a secular perspective, as required by law. They were not polite. They made outraged and outrageous claims of being harmed by having to hear ideas they didn’t like. They shouted, they raged, they threatened; they demanded that I be fired because I spoke of religions and religious ideas in the context of human history rather than promoting their preferred religious dogmas.

Twice, parents of Honors 11 Literature students threatened me because their children heard me state my identity as an atheist…while teachers who were Christians freely and regularly spoke of their beliefs and their churches during instructional time, as reported by students. While there is absolutely NO religious requirement to teach in Adrian Public Schools, many parents, teachers, and some administrators prioritize religion over the law and Constitution that require religious neutrality.

When Superintendent Behnke directed me to teach history from a Christian perspective, asked me to promote the Right To Life March, and denied me the right to my identities as an atheist and feminist, I retired, in part so that I would have the freedom to tell the truth, without fear of retaliation.

From my perspective, the problem with many Christians is that they feel completely entitled to disrespect any person or group, because they feel that they are god’s “chosen people,” and their behavior is endorsed by their god. When they work in a secular setting, such as a public school, they prioritize religious dogma over the rights of students and workers.

I witnessed student rights being violated by Christians daily. Students who called themselves Christians openly harassed other students, telling them that they were going to Hell, using misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, and racist slurs, and planting the dangerous seeds of science-denial, by promoting mythological stories in place of scientific fact. A quick look at the current, rising numbers of coronavirus infections in the district will convince you that science-denial endangers public health–and is an issue in the district.

During my time there, Christian students, teachers, and administrators created a climate where non-Christians and even more progressive, mainstream Christians were not safe to freely learn in peace. When harassed or bullied, victims lacked confidence that the administration would honor the policies that existed to create a safe environment, so they suffered in silence and looked forward to the day when they could leave it behind. I did the same. For many, leaving comes with the urge to speak of every awful incident of religious harassment and bullying; for others, part of leaving means walling off their injured self in order to move forward, continuing their silence. For all, the bullying we endured mars our memories of the learning community and the time we spent there.

While AHS claims to offer an IB education, this is not accurate as long as they refuse to embrace the part of the IB Mission Statement that says, “These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

Because Christian dogma is a “silent partner” in the AHS educational experience, IB students are denied the type of experience the IB program offers. Christian sensitivities can determine which IB art projects can be displayed in the school art gallery, because Christians rent the auditorium; Christian abstinence-based propaganda denies students the right to science-based, comprehensive, accurate sex ed; the music program is centered on Christian music at the winter concert season; and, for at least two years, AHS students were pressured to donate to religious organizations during December through a school-wide contest. A true IB education prepares students for diversity in the world by exposing them to a diversity of ideas, not a curriculum caged by religious dogma. In fact, the IB TOK course treats Religious Knowledge Systems (that’s plural) as ONE Area of Knowledge, alongside seven others, and shows no prejudice for any.

Showing their lack of curiosity, fear of ideas, and desire to control public school curriculum, once Christian parents tried to censor a book in the IB literature course, but IB Principal, Harry Marok, stood up for the IB Mission, because he understood his obligation to church-state separation. With Brad Sharp’s departure from the position of IB Director, there were no administrators left to hold that line.

As for teaching compassion? For years, Christian students ripped down the posters for Gay-Straight Alliance meetings time and again, without consequence. Christian football players pelted the Gay-Straight Alliance members with hard candy during the Homecoming parade. And most troubling, Christian parents and administrators harassed me and tried to make me stop teaching mindfulness practices that teach self-compassion, compassion for others, emotional regulation, self-control, and that improves brain function! Even when provided with years of research that shows the benefits to people when used in schools, the U.S. Military, Olympic coaches and athletes, NBA coaches and athletes, police forces and prisons. Again, dogma trumped science! Christians actually tried to deny others techniques that improve health as well as learning–in a school!

From my perspective, the problem with people who call themselves Christians is that they see equality among people as oppression of Christians. It isn’t that they are being silenced or harmed; it is that they react to the existence of other people and viewpoints as an attack on them. If they aren’t the ONLY voice in the room, they feel attacked. They cannot honor the IB Mission statement, because they cannot, in many cases, even LISTEN to other viewpoints, let alone see them as “also right.”

While one of my Christian colleagues would remind the staff that Christian students were allowed to carry and read Bibles during non-instructional time every year when the school year began, I don’t know of a single incident when an individual Christian student or any Christian group was the target of any kind of attack. Christians openly wore clothing and jewelry with religious symbols and slogans on them, spoke from a Christian perspective in classes, and hung posters for Christian club meetings around the building without incident. Why did my colleague behave as if Christian students were a persecuted group? It remains a mystery.

My experience with many Christians at AHS has shown me that they expect to be treated as if they and their ideas are superior to all other people and ideas, and when they’re not, they will weaponize their faith and use it as justification for targeting, harassing, and bullying anyone who expresses ideas they dislike. With the rise of Trump, Christians became even more emboldened to harass, intimidate, and silence non-Christians in the public school community, creating a toxic environment where people who don’t embrace–or at least silently accept–Christian dogma are not safe.

My son is a graduate of AHS, and he did face a couple of instances of religious harassment during his time in the district; however, administrators recognized and took steps to protect his rights when they were violated. With the arrival of Superintendent Behnke, the district took a hard turn to the Right. There is no way I would send my child to school there now; I have no confidence that the rights of non-Christian students will be protected. I’ve seen too much.

If I were looking for a school for my child, I’d want to see that the school shared our family values: secular government, human and civil rights for all, and freedom of identity and expression for the individual. I’d be looking for a school with explicit policies and practices to create racial and gender equality. I would be looking for a school that protects the rights of ALL students and teachers, a school that doesn’t treat non-Christians as second-class citizens. If they bear an IB label, I expect to see the IB Mission and Learner Profile reflected in the curriculum and PRACTICE of the administration and faculty.

Although experience has shown me that students and parents do not feel safe to make complaints when they are victims of religious harassment at APS, students have the right to an education without it. If you or someone you know is experiencing religious harassment at school, the Freedom From Religion Foundation will advocate for your rights, free of charge; you can contact them through this link if you need their help.

Contrary to the opinions of those in power at AHS, atheism is not a crime, a personal failing, or harmful to individuals or society, and, like it or not, there will come a time when they will have to break ties with their “silent partner,” Christianity, whether because they will be forced through legal means to follow the law, or because of population changes that make Christians a minority group.

Depending upon the survey, nones have gone from being about 10% of the U.S. population to between a quarter and 31.1%. For comparison’s sake, white evangelicals — whose clout has so captured the imagination of political commentators for years — represent 21.5% of the population, and their numbers are shrinking.

Why Women Are Opting Out of Religion

Along with the coming demographic changes, at some point, APS will have the chance to select a new superintendent. Perhaps then, church-state separation will be restored and students will have access to a secular, public education at AHS again. I look forward to that day.

Until then, I stand in solidarity with students and workers at APS who spend their days in an environment made toxic by Christian bullies. I understand if you don’t feel safe to make a report. I’m here to listen if you need support. I’ll stand with you if you decide to report. You deserve a secular public education free of religious harassment.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this: while non-Christians suffer unprovoked attacks from Christians in public school, the people who suffer the MOST harm from the religion are Christians, themselves. Religious trauma is real harm that occurs as a direct result of exposure to religious ideas and practices. If you are suffering as a result of being a member of a religious community, there are many online and in-person groups that exist to support people suffering from religious trauma and/or are ready to leave religion behind, including Dare to Doubt, Recovering From Religion, Secular Safe House, and others listed here, at The Art of Leaving.

lisa eddy is a writer and editor for-hire, researcher, educator-for-hire, youth advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy
On email: lisagay.eddy1@gmail.com