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Christian missionaries can no longer preach to kids in an Oklahoma school district
A lawsuit filed by the American Humanist Association has put a stop to the district's "Missionaries" program
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The American Humanist Association has successfully stopped an Oklahoma school district from forcing Christianity on children.
In October of 2020, the AHA filed a federal lawsuit against the Maryetta Public Schools (and several of its administrators) that included absolutely mind-blowing details. I was shocked by how long this district was allegedly able to get away with such blatant proselytizing.
The case involved a special program in the school district called—wait for it—"Missionaries," in which several Christian missionaries came into the classrooms once a month, during school hours, to preach Christianity for 30 or 60 minutes to a captive audience of kids as young as pre-kindergarten.
What if you didn’t want your child to attend? Too damn bad. There were no alternatives. And it’s not like parents even knew what was going on since they weren’t given permission slips, either.
Nor was there any attempt to suggest the program was distinct from the district itself. The program occurred in normal classrooms, sometimes as a substitute for regular classes, and the adults who normally assisted teachers with younger kids were present during these programs. Administrators also promoted the program via emails and announcements.
The lawsuit explained what these programs looked like in practice:
The Missionaries class consists of singing songs and playing games with a captive student audience. The classes promote Christianity, Jesus, and god-belief.
Bibles have also been distributed to prekindergarten students by the missionaries during school hours without parental consent.
The School District has described the Missionaries class as “character education”... No non-Christian “missionaries” have presented as part of the School District’s Missionaries program.
You already know what the national outcry would look like if Muslims (or Satanists!) ever did a fraction of what Christians were allowed to do here. The only reason we even knew about this egregious behavior was because a five-year-old girl told her two atheist parents.
Here they are (anonymous, in the lawsuit) telling their story:
On or about September 10, 2019, [mother] Jane picked [daughter] Jill up from school. After riding in the car for a short while, Jill asked, “Mom, is god real?” When Jane asked Jill what it was that prompted her to ask such a question, Jill said that, “these people came and sang songs and told us a story about god and how he’s real”...
Jill also told Jane that Jill had stated aloud her belief that god is not real. Jill told her mother that Defendant [Rickey] Christie “told me not to say that or I’d get in trouble.”
Rickey Christie, a P.E. teacher named in the lawsuit, apparently "corrected" that little girl to tell her God is real. The girl later just started saying she believed in God because she knew that's what the adults wanted to hear. But she wasn't happy about it. Her parents later said that their daughter's "cheerful temperament would noticeably degrade" whenever the missionaries came to visit.
Even when they signed a note opting her out of the Christian preaching class—an option the school never gave to other parents—he school made the girl attend anyway.
That's why the AHA decided to sue.
“Maryetta school officials have brazenly violated the First Amendment rights of their students,” said Monica Miller, Legal Director and Senior Counsel of the AHA.
“No school official could reasonably believe that it is constitutional to subject impressionable prekindergarten students to overt Christian proselytization in a class called ‘Missionaries’ led by church officials, held during school hours and with no option to leave,” Miller explained.
Miller added: “The fact that school officials have run this ‘Missionaries’ program for decades, together with the fact that they have forced children as young as four to participate and have done so without parental consent, makes this case appropriate for punitive damages.”
It was appalling behavior that went on for too long, in part, perhaps, because no one knew it was wrong or no one wanted to rock the boat. Either way, it needed to end, and the district needed to pay a price for allowing it to happen.
It may have taken a couple of years, but the AHA has now reached a settlement with the school district that will put an end to the “Missionaries” program for good:
As part of the settlement agreement, the School will issue a public statement recognizing the constitutional violation of the program and affirming that it will not be reinstated; Oklahoma school administrators will be informed how to avoid violating the First Amendment; and school districts statewide will be educated on their responsibilities under the Establishment Clause.
The school also agreed to pay damages to the family of a former Maryetta School student who was subjected to nearly a dozen Missionaries classes as a preschooler. The child and her family are humanists and members of the Cherokee Nation, but during more than one Missionaries class, she was forced to feign belief in the Christian god and told she would “get in trouble” if she said god did not exist.
Typically, "damages” in a case like this come out to $1. Something insignificant that functions as a symbolic victory. In this case, however, the family will receive $12,000 for what they went through.
The terms of the settlement have not been made public. But AHA Senior Counsel Katie McKerall explained the significance of the victory:
“It reaffirms the right of freedom of conscience for all. It is a victory for our clients, who have shown immense courage to challenge prejudices and preconceived notions, despite the public backlash and intimidation they faced. It is also a victory for education, understanding, and tolerance, because the settlement agreement provides that educational materials outlining schools’ responsibilities under the Establishment Clause will be provided to school districts across the state of Oklahoma. Countering misinformation with education about the true meaning of the First Amendment will reduce the likelihood that this kind of egregious constitutional violation will happen again.”
As of this writing, no public statement has been posted on the district’s website.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)
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