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Helping our school board with its ‘Gideon problem’

In the fall of 2011, I read in my small-town Kentucky newspaper how the Freedom From Religion Foundation had convinced the Muhlenberg County Board of Education to end Gideon bible distribution in local schools. I immediately checked out the FFRF website and decided then and there to become a member.

Six months later, curious about how our board of education was handling a different issue, I went online to review the minutes from the most recent board meeting. To my surprise, the board had unanimously approved “plans for collaboration and efforts to support the Gideon’s [sic] organization.”

Would a school board recently in trouble for allowing the Gideons into classrooms actually be pledging its support to Gideons International?

I spent nearly a month considering the matter. Though I found the board’s actions outrageous, I knew that pushing the issue could have huge consequences. We live in a highly religious community where grievances are not easily forgotten.

And while it was widely known that our family did not attend church, most didn’t know I was an atheist. I also knew that some would argue that I had no business criticizing public school policy, as we home-school our children.

Ultimately, I decided I could not let the matter go. I called a board member and asked him to explain the decision to collaborate with the Gideons. He insisted that the board’s vote actually meant that now any nonprofit group would be permitted to distribute literature at after-school events.

Of course, his explanation of the district’s new “open forum policy” was at odds with the official meeting minutes, so I emailed the district superintendent. He gave a similar version of events. When I asked to see the written policy, the superintendent told me that there wasn’t one.

After a great deal of research into the legality of “limited open forums,” I wrote the board and superintendent a detailed letter outlining the problems I saw with the policy, which appeared to have been adopted for the sole purpose of letting the Gideons back into the schools. I made it clear that if the board opened these doors, it would have to allow in other groups offering Muslim, pagan and even atheist literature.

I cited two school districts in North Carolina that abruptly ended their “open” policies as soon as pagans asked to distribute their books. After mailing the letter, I published it on my blog, hoping that going public might encourage the board to do the right thing.  Unfortunately, the superintendent responded to say that the board was content with the policy as it stood and had no plans to put it in writing.

Dissatisfied with this response, I decided to attend a couple of school board meetings to see if the issue would come up. Little did I realize that I was about to stumble on another problem. It turns out that the board was also accustomed to starting its meetings with a student-led prayer.

Winning secular access

Shortly after attending a second board meeting, I made contact with Walter Petit, a Muhlenberg County High School graduate who is now president of the Secular Student Alliance at Western Kentucky University, about an hour from Muhlenberg County. He and a few others were eager to remedy the situation.

Our primary goal was to convince the board not to allow any outside groups to distribute literature at official school functions; however, if the board insisted on allowing religious groups, then we wanted to have a secular presence. 

We sent separate requests to every public school principal in the county asking to distribute literature at upcoming after-school events. As an FFRF member, I said that I would be distributing a variety of materials, including Dan Barker’s books Godless and Just Pretend: a Freethought Book for Children.  

We didn’t know what to expect, but our requests were quickly accepted, and the various school principals started the process of scheduling us for specific after-school events. When I blogged about our upcoming appearances at local schools, comments began pouring in from local citizens who were outraged that atheists would be allowed to hand out materials. The story eventually made the evening news.    

The first event we chose to attend was Parent Night at the county’s only high school. Despite the negative backlash on my blog, the event was quite pleasant. About two dozen people — a mixture of students, parents, and staff — stopped by our table to pick up literature or ask questions. Several people said they were glad to see us there.

At the board meeting two weeks later, Petit repeated our request that the board end its policy of allowing outside groups to distribute literature in the schools. He firmly stated our demand that school board prayer be discontinued. Highlights from the meeting included a highly sectarian opening prayer that took swipes at our activism, and an anti-evolution rant from a board member who is also a Baptist minister.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott has sent the board a letter outlining the problems with both the literature distribution policy and school board prayer. We are awaiting the board’s response. In the meantime, I am enjoying networking with the many freethinkers I’ve met over the past few months, including several who live in Muhlenberg County.

In fact, our efforts have brought enough atheists and agnostics out of hiding that we hope to start a Muhlenberg County Freethinkers Group early next year.

 

Suzanne Lamb is a secular home-schooling parent, a former Catholic and the author of “What to Tell the Neighbors,” a blog about “unschooling” (an approach emphasizing children’s natural desire to learn that helps them become independent thinkers) and living as an atheist in the bible belt. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Review, Nano Fiction, Wigleaf and other journals. She lives with her husband, Steve, and their three children in Central City, Kentucky. 

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