Child’s death underscores need to protect religious rights of all

Sunday, August 5, 2001

When 12-year-old Tempest Smith committed suicide earlier this year, her classmates at Lincoln Park Middle School learned the hard way that teasing can be destructive — even deadly.

It appears that Tempest was an easy target. She was a Wiccan surrounded by kids who misunderstood and scorned her faith.

According to The Detroit News, Tempest's journal describes relentless ridicule of her religious beliefs. She recounts how classmates would frequently surround her chanting “Jesus loves you.” Tempest's mother claims that she tried without success to get school officials to intervene.

Witch-hunts are a recurring nightmare in American society. From the Salem witch trials more than 300 years ago through the anti-Catholic crusades of the 19th century to the attacks on Wiccans today, we have had our share of religious conflict and intolerance.

The First Amendment may guarantee religious liberty, but it can't eliminate the ignorance and fear that feeds prejudice toward minority religions.

Much of the hostility toward Wiccans stems from the mistaken notion that Wicca is a form of Satanism. So potent is this connection in the minds of many that some Wiccans are afraid to identify themselves publicly. Others report job or workplace discrimination and unfair treatment by the courts in child-custody cases.

Accurate information about Wicca would quickly dispel the myths. For example, the gods and goddesses worshipped by Wiccans don't include Satan or devils. Wicca is a nature-oriented, polytheistic faith that teaches people to affirm life and do no harm.

We don't have to agree about the truth of someone else's religion. But if we're going to live and work together as Americans, it helps to base our disagreement on what other people actually believe and practice.

Unfortunately for Tempest Smith and her family, many of the kids at Lincoln Park Middle School didn't know how to treat what the Puritans might have called “the stranger in the midst of the saints.”

Can we do better? In a nation with exploding religious diversity, let's hope so.

Schools are a good place to start. Under the First Amendment, the kids at Lincoln Park — or any other public school — should be free to share their faith with others.

But Tempest's classmates shouldn't be free to harass one another about religion (or other things). Whatever they thought of Wiccans, the students should have understood that Tempest had a right to her convictions.

Every school needs a policy that protects the right of kids to speak up, but draws the line at coercion or intimidation.

Of course, policies by themselves are never enough. Schools also need to teach kids that how they debate — not just what they debate — is important. If we want to minimize personal attacks, name-calling, ridicule and similar tactics in the public square, we must teach kids how to treat one another with civility and respect in our public schools.

Churches also need to do their part. “Freedom for me, but not for thee” may have been the Puritan idea of religious liberty. But today's clergy have a duty to inform their congregations about how religious freedom is supposed to work for everyone, including the smallest and least popular communities.

The First Amendment doesn't require us to accept or endorse religions that we believe are wrong. We are free to preach the truth as we know it. We are, however, called as citizens to protect the rights of others to choose their religion — even when we think they're making the wrong choice.

It would also help if churches made sure their congregations had accurate information about other faiths. Again, this isn't about “accepting” the beliefs of others. It's about getting beyond false rumors and stereotypes.

All of this advice comes too late to help Tempest Smith and her family. But it's never too late to improve how we treat one another in our communities and schools. We don't have to agree with one another about religion or anything else. But if we want to sustain the American experiment in liberty, we must take responsibility for protecting the rights of others — even those with whom we deeply disagree.

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