Freethinker of the Year 1997

This acceptance speech was delivered on December 5, 1997, at the twentieth annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Tampa, Florida.

The 1997 Freethinker of the Year has been a principal plaintiff--pun intended--in a lawsuit challenging numerous violations in a local public school. Michael Chandler, employed for 25 years by the DeKalb County school system in Alabama, has been an assistant principal for the last 13 years. With the aid of the ACLU, he brought a lawsuit in 1996 challenging religious worship at his son's school, as well as challenging a 1993 law promoting prayer in public schools.

His son Jesse, now in the eighth grade, was named as a plaintiff, as well as a Jane Doe and her daughter from another school district. That district settled, but Mr. Chandler's school district refused to comply with secular principles. Last March, U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent ruled that the school prayer law was unconstitutional. Gov. Fob James immediately counseled schools not to comply, but did not appeal the ruling.

Since then, Gov. James and his staff have made many notorious statements such as that the Bill of Rights do not apply to Alabama. Last October 30, Judge DeMent issued guidelines to be implemented in the DeKalb County schools to be strictly enforced, which have provoked even more attacks by Gov. James against Mr. Chandler.

By Michael Chandler

Some of you have written letters to the local paper where I live which have actually been printed. One day there were seven or eight letters, five from people around the country. Some of you, I'm sure, were in that group which made very nice points about why we need separation of church and state. It's nice to know there are other people who believe those same things that I do.

This was an effort I started about 12 years ago. I started out to keep the public schools as public schools. I'm a firm believer in separation of church and state. I became the assistant principal at Valley Head school in 1985. I'd been a teacher previously. Even though I'd been a teacher, I was unaware how much the public school incorporated religion into every school day. I think my first awakening came soon after I started my new job. I was told by the principal to schedule a time for what they call the Ponderosa Bible Camp to come to classrooms to teach bible lessons.

I pointed out to her that this was surely illegal--since we were both employees of the state of Alabama. She said it was something we always do, so let's do it. I felt very uncomfortable scheduling something I knew was illegal and something I came to see was harmful to children at the school where I worked.

Anyway, they came. We cancelled the academic instruction for a certain period of time, which was about once a month for every child. And they had religious instruction. Those who objected were sent to the hallway or to the principal's office to sit. Since I was the assistant principal I saw the faces of these small children every month when these people came in. Those who objected were criticized, ostracized and demonized by those other children in the classroom--those Christian children.

One day during my second year at Valley Head I was enrolling two little girls in school. They were in third or fourth grade. These two girls came from another school in the same system so they were aware of how things worked in DeKalb County. I finished and I asked them if they had any questions. One girl looked at me and asked, "Do you have bible stories in this school?"

I said, "I'm afraid we do. Why do you ask?"

Tears ran from that little girl's big brown eyes. She teared up and said, "At my other school I had to sit in the hall and the kids were mean to me."

That was a number of years ago, but I can still see that little girl's face today. She was harassed and intimidated because she was, at that point, a Jehovah's Witness, and her mom didn't want her listening to the bible stories.

I looked in her eyes and decided that day, probably ten or twelve years ago, to do something, or do what I could, to stop it.

First thing, I questioned the teachers involved and found that about half of them felt the same way I did. They didn't think religion had any business in public school, either. I took that information to the principal and told her what they thought and what I thought. She finally agreed to stop it in grades 4, 5, and 6. But she said the little kids in kindergarten through third grade need their bible stories so we'll keep doing it there.

I next went to visit the County Superintendent who's in charge of the school system in DeKalb County. I explained my objections and why I objected and the harm that was occurring there in his school system. He agreed to stop it if I would write a letter and sign my name so he could publish it and say, "This is the guy who complained, this is the reason why the Ponderosa Bible Camp was stopped." So I did that and stopped one violation out of many going on. I felt I had a little victory there after two or three years.

The next battle was the Gideons. I didn't get along with the Gideons very well. They came to my school. I asked why they were here. They said we're here to show the children the teachings of Jesus Christ. I said that was exactly why I didn't want them there. They got very upset. But I was only the assistant principal. The lady in charge wouldn't let me stop it, so it went on for two or three years. I had complained, pointed out it was illegal. I had to make copies of court cases which showed it was illegal before she finally let me stop them from passing out the New Testaments, but she wanted me to tell them. Which I was happy to do.

They would go through classrooms of grades 5-11, walk down the aisle and pass out their New Testaments to each child. If one child dared to say, "No, thank you, I have one at home," or "No, thank you, I don't want one," they would say, "Why not? You need this. It will save your soul. You need to take this home to your mother and father."

When I saw this happening I got more upset. The children were being intimidated by these men walking up and down the aisles in their suits and ties. The children thought they were school officials because it's a school and they were walking in the aisle like the teacher does.

After I finally convinced the principal to stop the Gideons, they would stand on the sidewalk, which they can legally do, I understand, and catch the kids as they crossed the road. But they were missing all the little kids, because I put them on a bus behind the building so they didn't have access to the small kids.

Last year, they found out a day I wasn't going to be at school and they walked up to the bus door and actually passed them to the children as they stepped on the bus. And this was after all the court cases. Even Alabama says you can't do that. But they did it because someone told them I wasn't going to be there that day.

The next year the Gideons went to the end of the intersection where the stop sign is. It was a nice fall day, the kids had the windows down on the bus, and the Gideons started tossing their bibles and testaments through the bus windows. The reason I know that is because a little boy came to me the next morning with a cut lip. I asked him what happened. He thought it was kind of funny. He said, "They were throwing bibles through the windows and I got hit in the mouth yesterday."

There are 24 principals in the county system where I work. I'd like to take credit that I'm the only one there out of 24 who will tell the Gideons "No." These people are very intimidating, very pushy.

I complained about the Gideons for seven or eight years, and then my son started to school. He's 14 now. When he got into 5th grade, which is the grade the Gideons target, even though I complained--and they knew I complained, they knew it was illegal--the Gideons walked into his classroom. They went down the aisle and passed out the bibles. He came home with a New Testament. I asked him where he got it and how he got it. He told me. I asked him why he took it. He said he thought he had to.

I told him what the law is. The separation of church and state failed because the school gave him the impression it was something he was supposed to do--it had the school stamp of approval on it.

Well, I went to the principal the next morning. I was not very happy about the situation. I talked to him for a short time about church-related activities in school, and he got mad because I dared to question religious activity in his school. He said I dared to question his doing "good things at school." "This is what these kids need," he said. "You're going to hell because you dare question what I'm doing."

At that point I got upset and left. That was in 1994, and I decided I had to get some help from someone to do something about this. I contacted probably 25 attorneys in Alabama from Huntsville to Birmingham to Montgomery to Chattanooga and told them what I wanted and why. Even with the evidence I had, not one of the 25 would offer any legal help to me. I mean, I was offering to pay. I said I'd pay whatever it takes to help me tell this guy he can't do this. They were all afraid to touch it. I guess they were afraid of the repercussions on their own income.

Then I began to document all of the illegal activity. I finally talked to the ACLU. They told me to make a record of what the school officials were doing, to keep everything.

Let me just tell you a few things they were doing. It's probably far and beyond what somebody could imagine that they were doing.

There was a two-week span in which my son was involved in probably about eight or ten religious activities at school. There was something every day. In 5th grade you have to go to a drug-awareness program. It's required. While he was there, the minister's daughter was leading some bible verses as part of the program. When I questioned the teacher she said it was a bible verse, but "wasn't religious in nature." I didn't spend a whole lot of time talking to her after that. I just left.

There was religion at all their school functions. For example, my son had a band concert at a PTO meeting. I walked in, sat down to listen to him play the saxophone. Then one minister gets up, has everyone bow their heads to have a prayer session. He was the Baptist minister from across the street. Then another one gets up. He does the same thing. (Once you have one of them, you've got to have two.) Finally, we get to the band concert, which was why I was there. Of course, I asked why they had a prayer and they said, "It's something we always do. Nobody else complains. You're the only one."

My son's fifth-grade teacher had everyone stand up before lunch to have a bible story or reading before lunch. She would either have a bible reading, she would have a prayer, or she would point to some child and that child would come up and lead a bible reading. This was two years ago. It wasn't a long time ago when they didn't know better.

Their home-room teachers would pass out flyers inviting kids to the church for pizza parties, for religious indoctrinations, for sermons. They have some football player there to speak to them to try to entice the kids. Of course, their football games, even this past fall, still began with a devotional over the PA system before the game started. Not all of them--we cut down on some of them.

Every school assembly they had--I'm talking past tense because it has gotten better--started with a prayer or bible reading. Required activities. Your child is required to go to school, your child is required to be sitting right there, required to listen to me read the bible over the PA system. There is no choice.

I spent about two years documenting, videotaping, writing things down, asking friends to videotape things and to give me information that would help the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

On Feb. 1, 1996, we filed a lawsuit. This county attorney signed consent decrees the next month to stop all religious activities. They didn't stop. I don't think a thing changed, they just promised to change.

One board member said after a board meeting one night that the majority still ruled in this country and if there's anybody who is unhappy they can return to wherever they came from. I've lived here for 47 years. I have nowhere to go. So he's going to have to put up with me for a lot longer.

They've had all kinds of protest rallies, which our governor encourages --he likes it. They had a rally close to my home town. About 3,000 people showed up at the Civic Center after this suit was filed. Things were going pretty smoothly up until this rally. Children were encouraged to attend. They had a lot of student speakers.

The very next week, my son walked into the lunchroom. There were 200 kids in the lunchroom. About 175-200 stood up when he walked in and said, "1, 2, 3 . . . pray" and recited the Lord's prayer. They did this starting in October 1996 and on through November and December. Everyday I would ask him, "Can you handle this? Is it all right? What can we do?"

He said, "I'm all right. As long as it doesn't bother me, they're not winning."

That went on through April 1997. I finally took him out of the room, told him to go to his mother's room [who is a teacher] and have a sandwich for lunch and just forget about it. Meanwhile I'd been talking to the superintendent, the principal, the state superintendent. This child walks into the lunchroom, it's only the period he's in there, they've never done this before, they say, "1, 2, 3 . . . pray," and 175 people stand up and start reciting bible verses to my son. That's not prayer! That's mean, it's vindictive, it's harassment and you should stop it. The judge's paper in my hand says you have to stop harassment. They said, "It's the lunchroom, they do what they please," and left the room.

This past October, Judge DeMent, the federal judge in charge of this case, finally put it in writing. He was appalled at what was going on. He told them to stop it instantly. My son is not in the lunchroom yet. I'm afraid to send him in there, for his own safety. But I think they've stopped it finally; they've been told to. It took them 12 months to stop that kind of harassment.

It's taken me 12 years to get to where we are today in Alabama. I feel that we've had some success. Things aren't perfect, but they are a lot better. At least people are aware they're not supposed to do these things. Many people have told me they didn't know you weren't supposed to these things in school.

There's a lot of extremists who use this majority rule argument, which is mob rule, to force their religion down your throat or down your children's throats at school. My civil rights are not up for majority vote. I insist upon certain rights in this country. We're entitled to those rights and I refuse to stand by while crazy people teach their intolerance and their hatred to school children where I have to work.

Michael Chandler is a native of Alabama. He attended high school at Fyffe, which is the same school his son, Jesse, is now attending. Mr. Chandler received his B.S. degree from Jacksonville State University. He also attended Alabama A&M-Huntsville, and received his six-year degree from the University of Alabama.

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