1995 Freethinker of the Year by Beverly Harris (November 1995)

By Beverly Harris

Thank you all for being here this evening. I am very honored to have been selected as the 1995 Freethinker of the Year, and there are a great many people without whom I would not be here tonight. I would like to share this honor with my mother, Phyllis Wright, and my brother, Sam Harris, who were my co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and whose love, support, and commitment to individual liberty have helped me to focus on what is really important. I would also like to recognize my attorneys, Stephen Pevar and Alan Kofoed, both of the American Civil Liberties Union, and to thank them for the countless hours of hard work and dedication they have put in on my behalf and on the behalf of every citizen’s constitutional rights. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank everyone else who has supported me in my fight against government-sponsored religious indoctrination, and to let them know that their contributions have not gone unnoticed. Last, but certainly not least, I would like to thank the Freedom from Religion Foundation both for honoring me at this weekend’s convention, and, more importantly, for their tireless efforts to make religious liberty a reality for every citizen of the United States.

I am sure that most of you have heard something about my lawsuit, but it did not receive a great deal of in-depth nationwide press coverage. In order to help make everyone more familiar with the particulars of my case, I’d like to take some time now to tell my story, as it were. In October of 1990, I was a seventeen-year-old senior at Grangeville High School in Grangeville, Idaho, a rural community with a population of approximately 3500. Due to the Weisman case, the issue of commencement prayers at public schools had become a front burner controversy, and the Idaho Superintendent of Public Schools was concerned about the possibility of lawsuits being filed in Idaho.

Consequently, he sent a memo to the superintendents of Idaho school districts advising them that they should be sensitive to the issue, and that they should exercise caution when making the decision whether or not to have a prayer at their graduations. After receiving the memo, Al Arnzen, Superintendent of Grangeville Joint School District 241, spoke with us, the high school seniors, in our U.S. Government classes, and told us that commencement prayer was a long-standing, meaningful tradition at Grangeville High School, and that he did not foresee any protests against its continuation from “anyone in a town like Grangeville.”

Having always been troubled by prayers held at graduations prior to mine, and being even further disturbed by our superintendent’s apparently blatant disregard for individual freedoms, I talked later with my mother about my concerns. That evening, she wrote a letter to Mr. Arnzen protesting against organized, school-endorsed prayer, and sent copies to the local newspapers and to the ACLU. The school administration appeared not to consider our protest seriously, and in February 1991, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of my family, seeking an end to the practice of having a prayer as part of the high school graduation program.

In an attempt to remove from the school administration any responsibility regarding the graduation program, Mr. Arnzen decided to have the senior class vote whether or not to have a prayer as part of the ceremony. The vote was 52-12 in favor of prayer. A classmate of mine, a local minister’s son, Jesse Heath, was selected to give both an invocation and a benediction. School officials then claimed that any prayer given at graduation would be student-initiated, and consequently constitutional, because the administration had no part in the decision-making.

One week before my high school graduation, in May 1991, our case was heard by U.S. District Judge Harold Ryan in Boise. In light of the fact that a decision on Lee v. Weisman was pending, Judge Ryan decided not to rule on our case, and he refused to grant an injunction against having prayer at my graduation. As a result, two prayers and a religious song were part of my graduation ceremony, and prayer continued to be a part of the graduation ceremonies of subsequent years.

In the fall of 1991, I moved to Caldwell, Idaho to attend Albertson College of Idaho. In June 1992, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Weismans, my family was elated, and cautiously optimistic. Unfortunately, however, in May 1993, Judge Ryan entered a ruling against us. We appealed his decision, and in June 1994, Stephen Pevar argued our case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

On November 18, 1994, much to our delight, the Court handed down a 2-1 decision, overturning Judge Ryan’s ruling, and declaring that the prayers held at Grangeville High School graduations were indeed unconstitutional. The Court held that school officials could not absolve themselves of their responsibility to individual liberties and to the Constitution simply by turning decision-making over to students. Dissatisfied with the new ruling, the school district appealed the Ninth Circuit Court decision to the United States Supreme Court.

Even though the Ninth Circuit Court had ruled that Grangeville High School’s practice of making prayer a part of the graduation program was unconstitutional, the school administration made the decision to allow the senior class to vote whether or not to have a prayer at their graduation. As per usual, the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of having a prayer. In light of the ruling in our favor, we asked the Ninth Circuit Court for an injunction against such a prayer, and just over a week before the 1995 graduation, an injunction was granted. As a result, my brother Sam’s high school graduation on June 2, 1995 was the first Grangeville High School graduation ceremony in memory which did not have a prayer on the program.

Unfortunately, however, our victory was relatively short-lived, because on June 26, 1995, the Supreme Court ordered the Ninth Circuit Court to dismiss our case on the grounds that it had become moot because my brother and I were no longer in high school. After both of us had graduated, my family was no longer directly affected by the commencement prayer. Since we were the only family involved in the lawsuit, and cases are decided only when both parties are directly involved in the matter at hand, the Ninth Circuit decision was vacated and is no longer binding.

There have been many highs and lows during the five years since we became involved in the fight against public school prayer. Although I remain as committed as ever to the defense of religious liberty, it has not always been easy to keep fighting. My senior year of high school was tremendously difficult. Overnight, my family became pariahs in Grangeville, and we became targets for various sorts of cruelty and harassment. My younger brothers were terrorized and beaten up, our cats were killed, our car tires were slashed, and we were generally ostracized by the community. Other parents would no longer sit next to my mom at my brothers’ sports events, and some people even went to the length of crossing the street so as not to walk on the same side as any of us. People whom I had thought were my friends for years turned against me instantly. Letters which included scathing personal attacks against me and my mom were written to and published in the local newspaper, and of course there were a great many rumors about our supposed atheism, and/or satanism. We also received a good deal of hate mail, which sometimes included death threats. Even today, I receive hate mail now and then.

What has been most frustrating for me about this whole affair is the widespread misunderstanding of the issue. Far too many people are either unable or unwilling to see my lawsuit as an issue of religious freedom, which protects all citizens of the United States from government-sponsored religious indoctrination. Many people are quick to turn it into a religious issue, and to accuse us of trying to undermine Christianity. Too many people do not understand that the very purpose of the Bill of Rights is to remove certain issues from the control of the majority, in order to protect the guaranteed rights of all citizens, even those in the minority. An unfortunate consequence of my experiences with the community of Grangeville and with others who violently opposed my actions is that I have become extremely wary and distrustful of Christianity, since so many terrible things were said and done to my family by supposedly “good Christians,” in the name of the Christian God. Also, because of the bad treatment that my family endured, those few people in Grangeville who did agree with us were afraid to make their views public.

Despite all the difficulty I have faced since becoming involved in the lawsuit, there were also some high points. When I started college in September 1991, I found a much more liberal atmosphere, and many of my professors and fellow students were supportive of my involvement with the lawsuit. In the college environment, people were generally much more quick to grasp the true nature of the issue, and I began to feel better about my part in defending religious liberty. In September 1994, I was awarded the ACLU of Idaho’s liberty award, which was presented to me at their annual awards banquet in Boise. I spoke briefly there, and also met Steve Shapiro, the National Legal Director of the ACLU, who was the keynote speaker. That evening, and likewise this one, it felt wonderful to be in a place with people who understood and supported what I was doing, where I did not always have to be on the defensive.

After the Ninth Circuit Court ruled in our favor last November, the issue came to the forefront again, and I gave numerous media interviews, and I was involved with various panel discussions and debates. I also participated in a opposing viewpoints discussion on PBS with a girl who belonged to a local bible club. I very much appreciated the opportunity to share my feelings on the subject of prayer in public schools, and I am happy to see the issue get as much press coverage as possible, so that people can become more aware of what it entails and of how important it is to all of us.

When I look back over the last five years, I can honestly say that I would do it all over again. The political climate grows increasingly alarming, and the Christian Right is ever more determined to make inroads on our guaranteed civil liberties. More than ever it is crucial that we realize the magnitude of the threat that our religious freedom faces, and that we continue to fight the uphill battle that protecting it has become. Too many people are willing to sit on the sidelines and let others do the fighting for them, and that complacency goes far toward endangering civil liberties. If we are committed to the Constitution, we must be committed to action. We can win this battle if we are willing to dedicate more to it than rhetoric.

Again, I thank you for recognizing me and for giving me the opportunity to speak this evening. I hope that each of us, myself included, leaves this convention with a renewed commitment to religious liberty and a determination to protect it. Thank you.

Freedom From Religion Foundation