Student Activist Awards

Richard & Beverly Hermsen Student Activist Awardee Jack Doe – 2017

Bullying, harassment, threats force plaintiff to remain anonymous

The high school student in FFRF's ongoing federal lawsuit, FFRF v. Concord Community Schools, is the recipient of a $5,000 student scholarship generously endowed by FFRF members Richard and Beverly Hermsen. "Jack" and his family are the original plaintiffs in this federal lawsuit in Indiana.

For 45 years, Concord Community High School in Elkhart, Ind., has been holding a show called "Concord's Christmas Spectacular." Families from all over the community attend, nearly always selling out all performances.

The show's first half consists of classic Christmas songs performed by the students who participate in the dance team, band, choir and orchestra. Following an intermission, the second half is a 20-minute segment dedicated to the retelling of the birth of Jesus Christ. It includes a full reading by a school staff member directly from the bible, while selected students are displayed, dressed as all the characters in the nativity scene. This is an infringement on the First Amendment and my rights as a student in a public high school.

I didn't know what to do. I felt awkward and out of place being made to perform in the second half of the show. As I started to reach out with my concerns, I began to see I wasn't alone. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish and atheist students had been pressured to participate in this dedicated showcase, even though they didn't believe in it.

Performances mandatory

Because the performances were mandatory, we had no choice but to go along with the school's program (or we would have our grades significantly reduced). This had to change. Someone had to stand up against this injustice, and not just for their own rights, but for the rights of their peers, as well. Little did I know, this would cause persecution and hatred throughout the community.

On Sept. 15, 2015, I finally became aware of just how entrenched Christianity was in my school system. After the school received the initial letter from Freedom From Religion Foundation stating that what Concord had been doing was completely unconstitutional and asking that it make changes, the superintendent of Concord Community Schools, John Trout, addressed the community at a school board meeting.

Trout stated the nativity portion of the Christmas Spectacular would not be changing. He received cheers from the packed room filled with parents, citizens and ministers.

Concord High School is supposed to be a secular public high school, but it was evident that there was a major Christian problem inside our walls. Throughout my years of attendance, Concord High School had a biology instructor who was teaching the students that the Earth was only 6,000 years old. This "educator" taught that humans and dinosaurs not only existed concurrently, but also survived a global flood together aboard a boat built by a 600-year-old man.

Now, to top it off, you have a superintendent who thinks the birth of a god-man not only has basis in reality, but is also an important part of everyone's Christmas celebration.

Legal action taken

After Trout's statement was made, we took legal action. The case must have scared him, because shortly after the press announced that the lawsuit had been filed, he changed his story and gave testimony that Concord High School had already planned on making changes to the nativity portion of the Spectacular even before FFRF got involved.

After the lawsuit was filed, time seemingly stepped back a few centuries in our community. Nonbelievers in our community were actively sought out, threatened and ridiculed. Students began blaming different people from week to week. Students would share gossip with their parents, and their parents would share these names on social media.

As an anonymous plaintiff, this was one of the hardest things to bear. Day after day, social media was littered with the names of many of my fellow students, calling them out as the "Doe family." My heart wrenched as those students were bullied and harassed.

It also reminded me, though, why anonymity was so important. The Christians in the Concord community were on a witch hunt. A visit to any social media story about Concord's nativity will show examples of name-calling, harassment and threats. These commenters would name parents and children they believed to be behind the lawsuit.

Hatred on social media

Suddenly, a Facebook page surfaced called "Save Concord's Christmas Spec's Nativity Scene," and this quickly became a place for hateful Christians to gather, with the page administrators encouraging it. It worried me what they would feel justified in doing to an innocent community member in the name of their God. Threats filled the page. People were saying they should "fight fire with fire" and burn the Does' house down. One parent even posted that they were going to have their kid find Jack Doe at school and show him what happens when he opens his mouth.

When the judge told Concord that they couldn't have a live nativity during the 2015 Christmas Spectacular, Concord took the judge's words literally. They secretly replaced the "live" nativity scene with one made of mannequins, instead of students, so they didn't technically have a "live" nativity scene. I simply can't describe the feeling of sadness and disappointment I felt as the curtain raised and the auditorium erupted with applause and cheers for Jesus by name.

Hundreds of pro-nativity shirts were sold and worn by the community. Yard signs were placed throughout the community supporting the injustice, and vehicle decals supporting the nativity were distributed, as well.

The upside to this was that it was ultimately their undoing, as the judge stated that all these things influenced his final decision. On March 7 of this year, U.S. District Court Judge Jon DeGuilio ruled the scene featuring live student actors as Mary, Joseph and other biblical figures had indeed been an unconstitutional endorsement of Christian beliefs.

My legal challenge against my own high school that began in 2015 had finally come to a close. However, the school ended up being allowed to include a static nativity scene featuring mannequins to represent the biblical figures. The school also added one Jewish song, with no lyrics, that was played by the orchestra to represent Hanukkah and one song from the choir, in a different language, to represent Kwanzaa in the second half of the show.

The judge ruled this adjusted performance didn't violate the Constitution. Since the ruling, we have decided to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals to hopefully rid Concord of the nativity scene and any other religious endorsement. A ruling in our favor by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals would set a precedent for other religious practices in any public school and place all schools around the country on notice.

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