What right should students have to talk about God in homework, assemblies, club meetings, and graduation speeches? This is the question at stake in a new law in Tennessee and other states across the country. On Thursday, Governor Bill Haslam signed the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, which affirms that religious students should have the same free-speech rights as secular ones. At first, this might seem uncontroversial; religious expression has always been protected by the First Amendment. So why did two Republican state legislators feel the need to write the bill?
"Christian conservative groups have for many years been frustrated by what they see as a hostile environment for religion in public schools," said Charles Haynes, the Director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. "They are convinced—with some justification—that there’s a lot more that public schools can be doing to protect religious expression."
In Tennessee, legislators pointed to one case in particular as the motivation for creating the bill. In October, a teacher told a Memphis fifth grader that she couldn’t write about God in an essay about “her idol.” In defiance, ten-year-old Erin Shead wrote two essays—both about the Almighty, although only one was about Michael Jackson—and her mom sought legal help. The elementary schooler was later allowed to turn in her God essay (and earned a score of 100%, as local news organizations dutifully reported at the time).
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Late in October, a complaint was filed against Aledo High School football coach Tim Buchanan for encouraging his players to “bully” their opponents. The nature of the alleged bullying? A win so decisive as to humiliate the losing team, with a final score of 91 to zero. The unhappy parent of a player on the defeated team had filed the complaint following Aledo’s lopsided victory.
An investigation by the school district soon cleared Coach Buchanan, and interviews suggest he did what he could to minimize the rout, but the feelings of that disgruntled parent aren’t hard to understand, even if we don’t agree with the charges. It’s one thing to lose in competition, quite another to feel as if you’re a total loser on the field, so inept that you might as well not play. The complaining parent no doubt believed his son had been demoralized by this staggering loss, his self-esteem shattered by such a public demonstration of athletic inferiority.
But unlike Coach Buchanan and his players, the actual bully deliberately sets out to make his victim feel inferior. It helps to view the bully as a kind of competitor on the social playing field, one who strives not only to win but to triumph over the social losers and destroy their sense of self. As in competitive sport, where winners and losers exist in a binary relation to one another, the bully is yoked in identity to his victims. To a significant degree, his self-image depends upon having those losers to persecute: I am a winner because you are a loser.
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An astounding, alarming, and basically false statistic.
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Despite secularism and atheism being on the rise, some areligious students feel discriminated against—at times violently. Now teachers across the U.S. are creating Secular Safe Zones to “curtail anti-atheist bullying, discrimination, and social isolation.”
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A couple weeks ago, Dan Savage, the sex columnist, activist, and editorial director of Seattle alt weekly The Stranger, was invited to speak at the National High School Journalism Convention in Seattle. Savage is the force behind the “It Gets Better” videos, a series of messages from gay adults — and, later, straight ones including President Obama — to bullied gay teens, which were intended to discourage suicide. Somewhat more mischievously, and less G-ratedly, he also led the charge to propagate a rather filthy sexual meaning for “Santorum” as punishment for Rick Santorum’s anti-gay politics.
In the course of his talk about bullying, Savage pointed out anti-gay activists sometimes cite the Bible to justify their beliefs and behavior. He then went on to point out that the Bible sanctions any number of activities we don’t allow today, including slavery and the stoning of women who are not virgins when married (the full text, if you don’t want to watch the video, ishere), strictures he referred to as “bullshit.” In protest, some (presumably) Christian members of the audience walked out. As he wrapped up the inflammatory section of his remarks, Savage apologized for offending anyone, but undercut that apology somewhat by adding, “It’s funny, as someone who’s on the receiving end of beatings that are justified by the Bible, how pansy-assed some people react when you push back.”