Schools should promote religious freedom, not Christian crusade

Sunday, April 27, 2003

School officials and Christian leaders in Union County, Tenn., need a crash course on the meaning of the First Amendment — especially the part that separates church from state.

According to a lawsuit just filed against the district, administrators and teachers in Union County have promoted a religious crusade during school hours, sponsored religious activities in school, and failed to stop harassment and abuse of a student who dared to be “different.”

One local pastor makes no apologies for using public schools to save souls. Among the “awesome results” of the yearly crusade, he writes, are “daily prayer in school, Bible in our curriculum … and now a national effort for prayer in school, plus crusades across America.”

Maybe we should send Union County school officials and pastors on a field trip to Karbala, Iraq. If they go this week, they’ll find the streets of Karbala packed with millions of Shiite Muslims on pilgrimage to one of their holiest shrines — a privilege denied to them for 20 years under Saddam Hussein. And they’ll hear the newly liberated Shiites loudly demanding an Islamic state modeled on neighboring Iran.

Here’s the lesson: When Shiites were in the hatches without freedom to practice their faith, they cried out angrily against those at the helm. But now that they are free to take the helm (more than 60% of Iraq’s population is Shiite), they seem to have forgotten what it’s like to be in the hatches.

Religious freedom? The Shiites want it for themselves — but not for the Sunni Muslims (37% of the population) or Christians and others (3%). As religious-liberty advocate James Dunn puts it, the trouble with theocracy is that everyone wants to be Theo.

The specter of a new state religion in Iraq (where Christians would surely be persecuted) should serve as a wake-up call for folks in Union County — and for people in any other American community where the majority faith is tempted to use the engine of government to trample the rights of minorities.

The lawsuit in Union County tells the sad story of one child’s suffering in a hostile school environment. When India Tracy was in fourth grade, she was the only child not to bring in a permission slip for the Area Wide Crusade. This earned her a trip to the principal’s office where she was asked why she didn’t want to go. (The suit alleges that administrators and teachers cooperated closely with the crusade which runs 90 minutes a day for several days and takes place during school time.)

India’s “no” to the crusade marked her as different — and her real troubles began. Word got out that her family is Pagan — a nature religion now widely practiced in this country. India says that she was called “Satan worshipper,” “baby eater,” “baby killer” (and other unprintable names) — and had to endure seeing all of this on her locker every day. More shocking still, she reports repeated physical attacks by classmates.

Where were school officials? According to the family, pleas to stop the harassment and abuse brought little action. “The last straw,” Tracy’s mother told The Knoxville News-Sentinel, “was when India was chased down the hallway by three boys who grabbed her by the back of the neck and told her she should change her religion or they’d change it for her.” At that point, the family pulled India out of school — and filed a lawsuit.

And now that the story is out, where are the Christian leaders in Union County? Instead of pushing for more religion (their religion) in the public schools, they should be speaking out in support of the Tracy family — and demanding that the schools start applying the First Amendment.

Evangelicals are quick to speak up when Christian students are denied their First Amendment rights in public schools — and so they should. But where evangelicals are in the overwhelming majority, they need to remember what it’s like to be in the minority and apply the Golden Rule.

As for India, she’s now being home schooled. But she will long remember the painful lessons learned while in the Union County public schools. She’s become an expert on what happens when the First Amendment is ignored.

It’s a mark of her courage that even while being harassed and abused, India dared to write a paper about “religious freedom.” She says that after she turned it in, a teacher warned her to “keep quiet because you’ll get in trouble.”

Fortunately for the First Amendment — and for the future of religious liberty in Union County — India and her family aren’t taking that advice.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. His e-mail address is Or write to him at the Freedom Forum, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209.

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