Student Litigant Wins Legal Victory: Jennifer Musgrove


Jennifer Musgrove
Photo by Brent Nicastro

In 1997, Foundation Board Member Richard Mole generously endowed an annual Student Activist Award, in the memory of Ruth (“Dixie”) Jokinen. The annual award is now a $1,000 cash scholarship to recognize student achievement in promoting freethought or the separation of church and state.

David Musgrove noted that his daughter, Jennifer Musgrove, has been vigilant throughout her high school career in taking an active and vocal stance for separation of church and state and exercising her right not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. These actions often brought Jenn the disdain and mockery of her schoolmates and even teachers and staff, yet she has been steadfast. This lawsuit against the school surprised no one that knew her, he said.

Jenn, her father David, and co-plaintiff Dianna Narciso won their lawsuit on October 25. The school board agreed not to hold graduation ceremonies in churches or other institutions where religious iconography is visible, inside or outside the building, and even to pay American United’s attorneys’ fees! The settlement affects not only Jenn’s high school but Bayside, Eau Gallie, and Melbourne.

Jennifer accepted her student activist award at the 28th annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Orlando, Fla., on Nov. 12, 2005.

By Jennifer Musgrove

I’m not a public speaker so forgive my extreme nerves. I’m very flattered that I’m being given this award. I didn’t think people would acknowledge me. I thought it was just a small lawsuit and no one would hear about it.

It all started a few years ago. I guess ninth grade is when Christianity was first brought into my school by baseball players. They started advertising through tracts and stuff, going to the church after school and having a little party. I told my dad, and we reported it, which completely ruined any future activities in the church, so I got yelled at about that from a few classmates who were Christians. Then tenth grade I don’t think anything happened.

In 11th grade, they started putting up posters called “Meet Me at the Pole,” where you pray at the flagpole at school. You gather in a circle and you start praying. That’s advertising a religious activity as well, so I reported that, too. (And ripped down the posters.)

I got in trouble for ripping down the posters, but the people who put them up in the first place got in trouble, too. So a couple more people started hating me. Altogether I’ve got maybe a fourth of school hating me. By 11th grade it was quite an achievement.

And then senior year just really made me mad when, once again, they were seeping church into the school, but this time in a big thing. I was going to graduate. I started out as a D student in middle school, and at the beginning of high school, and then I started getting A’s. I was going to graduate as an honor student. I’m like, “I worked this hard, and I’m going to have to graduate in a church?

So I just told my dad about it, and we decided to threaten the school a little bit. We gave them plenty of notice, in early March, late February. A question a lot of the students had when they did find out about it in May was, “Why didn’t you do this earlier?” But we did.

The school board said, “Oh, okay, we’ll have it somewhere else, don’t worry about it.” So they were basically lying to us, big surprise there.

“We’re going to burn your yard and your house.”

When we did bring the lawsuit, a lot of people wanted to beat me up and vandalize my car, and leave “scary notes” under my windshield, saying, “We know where you live.” Oh, I was terrified. [sarcastic]

It was not traumatic for me, because I really didn’t care. I just didn’t want to have our graduation in the church, so the students who hated me didn’t mean anything. What was hard was losing my friends. I lost a lot of my friends from it. A lot of “friends” who were like, “We’re going to burn your yard and your house.”

The thing is, these same students earlier in January said they wanted to graduate somewhere else. They were complaining to me, so when I do something about it, they’re mad at me. Then they feel like their Christianity is being threatened. You know how people who haven’t gone to church in years will band together and stand strong? They’re hypocrites.

Questions and answers follow.

Did any other kids stand up for you?

Yeah. Some of my friends, even though they were Christians, they still stood by my side, because I was sticking up for my rights. So yeah, there were some students who were with me. I didn’t see a lot like me who were openly activist.

What high school did you go to?

Palm Bay High School.

After it was announced that you took this lawsuit, you said that students were very angry with you. Was the school providing protection for you? Did you need it?

There were a few teachers who were always my favorites, they were like, “Good job, Jenn,” and they were with me, but I was not escorted to classes by students, and the teachers wouldn’t say anything if I was confronted. I bet if someone slapped me right in the hallway, they wouldn’t have stopped it, because a lot of teachers were mad at me.

What was the response, from teachers?

One of the secretaries, whom I don’t really care about and I made it known that her opinion mattered to me not, said, “You’re ruining graduation for over 2,000 people. A lot of these kids want to get their diplomas.” I said, “Well, I’m not preventing them from getting their diplomas.” They would still get their diplomas in the mail. Graduation doesn’t necessarily mean you need to come up and get it.

Where did graduation actually take place?

It took place in the church, basically, because I was too late [seeking the injunction]. I got boo’ed onstage. I went and graduated and I got boo’ed.

Is it going to take place in the church next year?

I don’t think so, no. I made sure of that.

What was hard was losing my friends.

Would you say that your experience made it difficult to study? Did your grades suffer, or did you have problems in school?

It was at the end of the year, so no, I already had my grades in. It was kind of hard, because I was trying to catch up in ceramics class after school. I couldn’t do my work, because people came in knowing I was there: “I know she’s there, let’s go get her.” They came in and just looked at me. It was like, “Ooh, you’re bad.” You know, waiting. I didn’t leave for an extra hour after school ’til they left.

Whose idea was it to actually bring the lawsuit? How did you come to the lawsuit?

I told my dad that if they continue to do this, I wanted to bring a lawsuit or whatever. Originally I was kind of surprised that he actually did it. But he knew how strongly he and I felt about it. I was really, really into my studies at that time, for graduation, so I was really preoccupied. And as soon as he said he would like to sue, I jumped right into it and said I wanted to be a part of that.

Were you raised in any religious upbringing?

My mom and my stepdad were extremely religious Baptist-conservatives, and I hated religion with a passion. In fact, I used to show my defiance by bringing in whoopie cushions and stuff. You know, acting out in church, being a menace. When I got baptized, I started having “convulsions.” I was going like this. [acts it out exaggeratedly] It was really funny, except my parents didn’t think so. You know, “Use the rod, spoil the child,” they always used that on me too. I got spanked pretty good for that one.

What do you plan to study in college?


Did you get any help from Jews or other nonChristian religious people?

My counselor was Jewish, so she really didn’t say anything because her job was on the line. She said off the record and she spoke to my dad, who’s standing right there. [points] He’s the one who originally filed the lawsuit, not me. He was the vigilant one.

I was going to say we hope you continue raising hell.

I will.

How did the news media treat you?

I only got approached by one person, and it was basically neutral. I got aired on television. The news media, basically, I think, were for me because they made me look good and the other side looked really bad. They interviewed a really dumb girl. She’s like, “I don’t really care, like, where we, like, graduate. I just, like, wanna get my diploma.” That’s what she said.

Did you get any problems in your home?

No. Where I am at home, my dad and Bruce, they were all for me. And my mom was there, actually, she came for my graduation. The one who’s really conservative? She was there for me too, probably because I moved out of that home and moved in with my dad. Even though she didn’t agree with me, she was still there for me.

Thank you so much for being so brave.

You’re welcome.

Where did you get your courage from?

I got my courage to go against what my friends believe because I really didn’t have any friends! I had a couple, but I never really got close to people. What surprised me was the really close friends that I made, that I worked with, were against me, whereas the acquaintances were there for me. I hadn’t considered them friends; now I do. I didn’t really appreciate them until then.

Jennifer Musgrove, age 18, is a college student at the Palm Bay (Fla.) campus of Brevard Community College, attending with a Florida Bright Futures Medallion Scholarship award. After two years, she will transfer to the University of Central Florida, where she plans to major in astronomy. As an honors student in high school, she was an activist for separation of church and state, and exercised her right not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Freedom From Religion Foundation