Religious Freedom? Or Freedom from Religion?

I think I’ve discussed a bit about the goings on in my county, especially in regard to our school board. They recently voted 4-3 to allow a Christian group known for discriminatory practices to review our equity policy in our public schools. The only member to reply to my initial email with concerns was excited that the Alliance Defending Freedom would provide this legal advice for free. Well, we all know that nothing in life is free, especially in this transactional society in which we live. The ADF is the group that successfully defended a bakery who wished to not make wedding cakes for same sex couples, based on religious freedom; this case made it to the Supreme Court. They have been classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. 

It’s interesting to me that when you search Southern Poverty Law Center via Google, the first thing that pops up is an ad by ADF. It warns, in sharp language, that SPLC is not a civil rights law practice, but a “partisan political group.” Basically, projecting the accusations. Sigh. I wonder how they managed to do that? ($$$) Further exploration down the rabbit hole will lead to a number of articles slandering the SPLC. But this is not the only civil rights organization expressing concern with the ADF. 

The Fight

My community is fighting back. We are getting organized. The ACLU, Equity VA, the NAACP, and many local LGBTQ rights orgnaizations are working with other concerned citizens to prevent evangelical Christians from influencing our laws. One of the first organized actions was an email blast to both our school board and our board of supervisors. 

In Hanover, we maintain the antiquated system of school boards appointed by our supervisors; we do not hold free elections for these offices. This is a method of preserving the systemic racism policies that continue to exist in the United States, ensuring that only voices which echo the views of the leadership in the county will shape school policies. Our school board is mostly older, white men.

One of our supervisors was less than impressed by our email blast, sending out a canned reply that essentially expressed that he received the same message from several constituents, rendering it meaningless. He also discounted the notion that ADF is a hate group, noting that by his (apparently) limited research, the only organization who deems it so is the SPLC. Which, as you now know, has an ad slandering it by the ADF as its Google introduction. 

Here was my response:

___

Dear Supervisor:

I’m happy that there are so many other concerned citizens of Hanover. Maybe these emails will open your mind to the notion that not everyone sees this “free” legal advice as beneficial. They, like me, are witnessing the flagrant dismissal of our nation’s constitution. 

In life, there are many shades of gray. In this, however, there is only right or wrong through the lens of the Constitution, which outlines the separation of church and state in the Establishment Clause of the first amendment. It is simply wrong to allow a religious organization to advise our local government in public school policy. Believe it or not, not everyone in Hanover is Christian, or at least the type of Christianity of the ADF. 

The decision of our school board to approve of a religious group, especially one known to discriminate against LGBTQ citizens, to be involved in the development of policy for our public schools is a barometer for the health of our democracy. And Hanover County is failing.

As a healthcare provider, I’ve worked through the pandemic to help victims of Covid fight to get their lives back. And, yes, I’ve lost some patients along the way, which is heartbreaking. I’m exhausted, like many others in my profession. I’m also tired of fighting the battle of misinformation. Now I also have to bear witness to the dismantling of our respect for our fellow humans. While I fight to protect, you are fighting to reserve your right to do harm.

I request that you reconsider this decision by the school board.

Thank you for addressing my concerns.

___

In addition to our email campaign, showing up to school board meetings, and organizing with the ACLU, two of our high schools staged a walkout in support of transgender and nonbinary students’ rights on Friday. Schools in other Virginia counties also participated. Although some counties were supportive of the brief measure for students to voice their concerns, my county sent an email to parents noting that this action would be a violation of code, and that students would be punished appropriately, leaving no room for civil discourse. This is Hanover. 

Nature vs. Nurture

My county leadership seemingly fails to recognize that we can’t choose our biology at birth. How we are wired for sexual orientation, gender identity, our skin color, our intelligence level; these are not choices. We can, and should, however, choose to treat our fellow humans with dignity and respect. This includes recognizing students by their preferred pronouns, not discriminating based on sexual orientation, by not doling out unequal punishment to students based on multiple factors (like socioeconomic status and skin color), and believing children when they report bullying or assault. 

As a biology major, I spent a fair amount of time pondering the question of nature vs. nurture. We are all born with a genetic code that includes our natural tendencies, including our personalities. And although we can’t change nature, we can nurture values and behaviors that promote respect. Sometimes the very organizations that society views as wholesome and positively influential in shaping values are anything but. This includes religious organizations. And religion has no business being a part of a public education. 

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may recall that I am a product of a Southern Baptist upbringing. And although my home church was and continues to be moderate, in fact leaving the Southern Baptist Convention entirely, and my own parents did not echo some of the harmful rhetoric I was taught in church, there are still some issues from this influence that are harmful to me to this day; scars that will remain a part of my very soul. 

I was exposed to more fundamentalist teachings at other churches that I attended with friends, and I couldn’t believe that the church would teach children that homosexuality is a choice, like a curse. Even as a young teenager, this belief struck me as fundamentally wrong. I guess I’ve always been a student of science. 

I also refuse to subscribe to the evangelical Christian notion that people are born bad, becoming “good” only by the grace of salvation through Christ. Also not true, which is a lesson I had to teach to my then 4 year old after attending a neighborhood church’s event for children. 

Keep It Simple

In my arguments with the county government, I’m trying to keep it simple, reiterating that the separation of church and state is one of the stones in the foundation of our nation. My views, and their views about religion, are of no matter, as long as religion does not influence our policies. This is the most basic argument in this fight for social justice.

___________

As for my email response, I’ve received nothing back. 

These grumblings at the school board level are happening all over the country, as evangelical/Christian Nationalist groups are grasping to control our laws, mostly successfully. We are watching the pillars of democracy crumble as reproductive rights are stripped, as voting rights are dismantled, as LGBTQ rights are blocked. I fear this is just the beginning. As I have stated in the past, if we sit back and watch these injustices unfold, doing nothing, then apathy wins. This is not the time for apathy. We need to speak up, no matter how small we think our voices sound. 

One action you can take? Google the Southern Poverty Law Center yourself. If you see the ad from the ADF pop up first, click on the three dots in the upper right of the ad. Report the ad as “violates other Google ad policies.” In the next step, report it as “misleading or spam.” In additional details, put whatever you like, but you can simply say “slander.”

As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.

Published by annecreates

I am a physical therapist, wife, mom, runner, artist, and vegan. I'm passionate about helping others find wellness, speaking about the human experience, and in fighting for social justice. Assistant Coach for the Sports Backers Marathon Training Team. Current ambassador for: Boco Gear, SaltStick, Switch4Good, and Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Marathon 2022.

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