Atheist Bible Study Middle School Club Begins By Karl Black (May 1999)

Being raised in the Roman Catholic church and schools, we were taught to believe that all other gods were false. Then, while in college, I read the Bible cover to cover and decided that the Christian god is also a myth because no all-powerful, loving god could do such ridiculous and cruel things as the god depicted in that book. Linda and I have been Atheists for 15 years.

In October last year, eighth-grade student Sarah Zoutendam, daughter of missionaries who had been in Jordan for the previous 15 years, came to the school board claiming that people without a god to live for are suicidal, that “a lot”of kids were into dangerous Satanic cults, and that it would be good for her and other students to pray for the teachers and the Belleville school district while at South Middle School.

Obviously these claims are entirely bogus and only meant as scare tactics. We, and our many atheist friends, are living happy, normal lives. The teachers in the school system, who have at least had some basic psychology courses in their training, did not notice anything strange about student activities or behavior–but this 13-year-old, in less than one year of living here, claimed to have found Satanism rampant. And of course churches, which outnumber schools in our district by over 3 to 1 (I checked in the Yellow Pages), are useless when it comes to praying for people in the school.

Entirely overlooked is the fact that her family is here, and not in Jordan where they previously were, for exactly that reason: prayer doesn’t work. After sustaining injuries in a car accident in the Middle East, Mrs. Zoutendam, knowing she could not be cured with prayer, came back to the United States where the human hands that deliver the best medical care currently known could heal her.

I went to the school board the following meeting and reminded them that the schools are supposed to educate, not indoctrinate, and that they are also supposed to remain secular according to the First Amendment. Of course, they bowed to the whims of the religious as did the Supreme Court in 1990 when it refused to take a stand against the Equal Access Law, which is clearly written to advance religion in the schools.

However, since the law is supposed to require equal access, atheists should be able to have “group meetings” as well; so I asked my daughters if they were ready to show the other children what was really in the Bible. Surprisingly, the normally shy one, Amanda, age 13, was very much ready to take on the task while the normally bold one, Megan, was hesitant.

In late November we then went to the school board with the proposal that, in order to provide some balance and offset the prejudiced remarks being made against us atheists, my daughters would like to have Atheist Bible Study group meetings at lunch time as well. At that board meeting they could only take it under advisement and put it on the agenda for the next meeting which, due to the long holiday break and a cancelled meeting because of heavy snow, was over a month later.

By this time it was mid-January, 1999. Superintendent Richendollar first tried to deny us “equal access” as he thought the proposed group was too controversial and not “student led” simply because I spoke at the meeting. The school lawyer attending the meeting told him he could not refuse us since he had approved the (Christian) Bible study group. Naturally, the girls would be running the meetings as I could not be in the school, anyway.

The school board then demanded that the girls get a sponsor for their groups and I immediately objected, pointing out that the Equal Access Act specifically states that requiring a sponsor is illegal, the school can only assign a teacher if they wish in order to monitor the meetings and keep the children in line, or to clean up after them. They decided to hold their ground on this requirement.

Shortly after that we received a call from Ayesha Khan of Americans United for Separation of Church and State offering to help us. She wrote a letter telling the superintendent that our rights were being violated by requiring a sponsor, and threatened to follow up with legal action if the school system did not rectify the situation. It appears she thought the school would back down due to the cases of law she cited, which I thought clearly pointed out the fact that the school placed an illegal requirement on the girls. The school officials stood their ground.

During all of this Amanda asked no less than eight different teachers if they would be willing to “sponsor” her group meetings. The first person she asked was Mr. Krug, the science teacher who, ironically, had offered to sponsor the religious group. She told him he would be the best person to do it in order to demonstrate fairness to the students. His answer was “People would think I’m crazy.”

Finally an agnostic teacher, Mr. Perry, came forward and offered to sponsor Amanda’s meetings every other week. He first approached all five of the teachers who teach Amanda in their classes, asking extensively about her before doing this, and told her, “Not one of your teachers had even a single bad thing to say about you.”Only then was he willing to sponsor her meetings.

Her first meeting was set for April 13, 1999. There were six children who told Amanda that they were interested in hearing what she had to say, but so far only two have taken permission slips to get signed by their parents.

We have been contacted by many atheists commending us for our actions.

Something unheard of has come about due to our fighting religion in the school system. When the little local pa per in Belleville carried a report about my standing up to the school board, letters to the editor started flying (of course) accusing me of trying to stop children from praying and pushing drug use, among other things (don’t ask me how that association was made).

I sent a letter to the editor saying that the press was not really free and accessible to others due to the prejudice of religious people who boycott and try to put businesses under when they have a disagreement with the owner or operator’s ideas. I pointed out that there was a religious column in virtually all papers, including the Belleville Independent, but that there was not an atheist column in sight, and I offered to write a regular column to provide some balance. Two other letters from atheists appeared in the paper the following weeks urging the editor to do so.

Rosemary Otzman, the editor, accepted my challenge and asked me to submit four articles for her to review. She has just published my first article and actually put me on the payroll to write a regular weekly column. She agreed with my argument that opposing viewpoints should be made available in a free and fair press. I will continue to send these articles over as long as Rosemary is brave enough to print them.

Karl Black lives in Michigan.

Freedom From Religion Foundation