Salon has a distinct animus against atheism, and that includes a new piece by staff writer by Mary Elizabeth Williams: “Atheists: Just as obnoxious as Christians“. Her remarkably naive piece instantiates the famous xkcd cartoon that has become almost viral in our community:
So why are atheists as obnoxious as Christians? Here’s the story. In January of this year, a religious group, World Changers of Florida, began a “passive” distribution of Bibles in eleven public schools in Orange County Florida. (“Passive” means that the Bibles were simply laid on tables in the school for students to take.) The Freedom from Religion Foundation’s (FFRF) news report notes:
The [school] district has created a limited public forum in Orange County public schools. On Jan. 16, World Changers of Florida used the forum to distribute New International Version bibles to students in 11 schools. WCF “support[s] the biblical account of creation, including having creation theory taught in our public schools” and “speak[s] out against humanistic views contrary to the biblically based founding fathers’ constitutional vision.”
This is clearly a violation of the Constitution, for it promulgates religion in public schools. FFRF objected by letter, trying to stop the distribution of Bibles:
The plaintiffs contend that public schools shouldn’t allow literature distributions by any outside group and told the school district that by letter before the World Changers event. Williamson reiterated that position at a Jan. 29 pre-agenda meeting of the School Board.
FFRF encouraged the district to adopt a policy that “prohibits outside groups from turning schools into religious battlegrounds while preserving the distribution system for the benefit of the school” and suggested model language.
But the school refused to stop the distribution, and a judge ruled it legal. The FFRF, then, asked that they be allowed to distribute their own nonreligious materials at the same time:
After the district refused, FFRF asked for permission to distribute secular materials. Williamson submitted the secular groups’ literature Jan. 29 for approval. Included were nine “nontracts,” five brochures, eight books, one essay and one sticker. Three books were voluntarily withdrawn in order to speed the approval process after stonewalling by the district.
The district prohibited four of FFRF’s five books, leaving part of one book and several small pamphlets. “Good Without God” stickers were prohibited.
Here’s the list of materials suggested for distribution by the FFRF (taken from the ensuing FFRF lawsuit), and what happened to them. The FFRF voluntarily rescinded three books under pressure from the schools, which was delaying approval. The school then prohibited four of the remaining five books, leaving one partial book (Part III of The Age of Reason) and a few small pamphlets, so the volume of material was substantially less than the contents of the Bible. (The version of the Bible distributed was the equivalent of 1900 pages when printed as a normal book; the FFRF asked for 1300 pages—less material—to be distributed, but only about 100 pages were allowed.)
- The district objected to the Harris book for describing “the sacrifice of virgins, killing and eating of children in order to ensure the future fertility of mothers, feeding infants to sharks, and the burning of widows so they can follow their husbands into the next world.” FFRF’s complaint notes that the concepts flagged as age inappropriate all appear in the bible.
- WCF put up interactive whiteboards, had volunteers staffing tables to talk with students and passed out invitations to worship at the Orlando Wesleyan Church. Plaintiffs attempted to pass out a pizza party invitation but were censored at several schools. Freethought volunteers had to wait up to an hour at some schools to set up.
In other words, violence and immorality are okay if they’re in the Bible, but it’s not okay for Harris to point this out.
At this point the FFRF had enough, and filed suit against the school board (free pdf of lawsuit here). As you’ll see, the lawsuit requests this:
Our public schools exist to educate, not to serve as conduits for advertisers, proselytizers, and special interest groups seeking to propagandize a captive audience of young students. Plaintiffs prefer that no dissemination of outside materials, such as Bibles or their own literature, occur in Orange County Public Schools. But since Defendants are allowing distributions, all viewpoints must now be granted fair and equal access.
Enter Salon, where Mary Elizabeth Williams, who does object to the distribution of Bibles, objects even more to the FFRF’s lawsuit, calling it “obnoxious,” “whiny,” and even “idiocy”:
It’s patently absurd and offensive that the World Changers of Florida organization, a Christian group with the hilariously inaccurate stated purpose of furthering “the biblically based founding fathers constitutional vision” has been allowed to run roughshod over the district and impose its vision at taxpayer-funded schools. This should never have happened in the first place.
But idiocy isn’t fixed with more idiocy. A petulant strategy of “You let them do this and if we can’t do that we’re going to sue” is absurd and immature. The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s threat that the “plaintiffs intend to repeat the distribution every school year, unless the school prohibits all such distributions, including bibles” doesn’t sound like a blow for freedom of expression; it just sounds whiny. And when you say you’re “committed to the cherished principle of separation of state and church” and you’re fighting to distribute anti-religious materials in state-run facilities, you’re not separating church and state either. You’re promoting an explicit agenda.
I get that a point is being made here about the selectivity of the school board’s permissiveness. I get that it should not rain Bibles in schools. You know why I get it? Because I’m a concerned parent. Because I have two children I’m trying to protect from aggressive hotheads trying to shove their ideologies upon them. At their schools. I resent that, and I sure as hell don’t respect that, regardless of the source.
You know that thing about being the change you want to see in the world? Yeah, that. You want to make a statement? Is there a way you could do that that wouldn’t involve being all aggro toward minors? If you’re concerned that inappropriate materials are being handed out to kids, you don’t threaten to do the same thing. You don’t get in a pissing contest over who can be more obnoxious. And you don’t use schoolchildren as your pawns.
In fact, it’s Williams who is the whiny one here, and also shows a profound misunderstanding of the serious issues at hand. First of all, this is not an issue of “the separation of church and state”, but one of, as the lawsuit argues, of “equal protection and freedom of speech.” Second, the violation of freedom of speech here is a serious issue. If it’s allowed to stand, it will spread, for Christianity in America is ever busy and ever feeding on ignorance.
Apparently Williams feels that if the courts allow the distribution of Bibles, not much should be done about it. After all, that’s “using schoolchildren as pawns.” (It isn’t, of course: no schoolchildren are directly involved in this suit). This isn’t about explicitly promoting an atheist agenda, but allowing contrary viewpoints to be expressed if a Christian viewpoint is permitted and encouraged.
After all, doesn’t Williams think that World Changers of Florida were “promoting an explicit agenda”? If not, why on earth were they distributing Bibles?
Finally, the FFRF’s lawsuit was a last resort, one taken after the courts allowed the distribution of Bibles but prohibited the distribution of nearly all opposing materials. The FFRF did everything it could to stop the Bible giveaway, and when that failed they tried to secure the Constitutional freedom of secular speech. When the schools wouldn’t go for this, the FFRF filed a lawsuit, albeit reluctantly (see below).
It’s curious that although Williams seems strongly opposed to her kids being offered free Bibles, she also decries the FFRF’s attempt to “make a statement,” and, tellingly offers no suggestions about how to do make any statement. Are the FFRF and the secular parents who supported them supposed to offer timid editorials in, say, the local newspapers? That’s really going to work in Florida!
No, the only way to get this kind of nonsense to stop is to ask for equal time, and, if that’s not granted, file a lawsuit. The FFRF doesn’t like doing that because, as they told me, they realize that schools have limited financial resources and they don’t want school budgets eroded by litigation. But legal action, or the threat thereof, is one of the few ways to get these proselytizing Christians to actually pay attention. This is what we learned in the case of Eric Hedin and Ball State University.
Schools have to learn that if they insist on violating the Constitution, their budgets will be at risk. And insisting on such violations really is using schoolchildren as pawns. As the FFRF’s lawyer on this case, Andrew Seidel, wrote me (quoted with permission):
We gave the school plenty of opportunities to either (1) shut the forum down as they are allowed to do by law—every time they refused, or (2) to at least allow a fair and equitable distribution. Paragraph 5 of the complaint on page 2 lays out our stance pretty clearly. The bottom line is that we always try to work with schools. But if they refuse to follow the Constitution or if they violate our rights, we’re not going to take it lying down.