Ask Richard: High School Student Faces Dilemma Over Reporting School’s Church/State Violations February 28, 2017

Ask Richard: High School Student Faces Dilemma Over Reporting School’s Church/State Violations


Hi, Richard.

I am a high school senior. Numerous church/state violations have happened at my school, and I know of one coming up in April. Two of my peers have died, so the school will raise money for their families by having “a Christian comedian” as described by the teachers come over. Proceeds from the admission fee will go to the families. I am wondering if I can report it to FFRF in a way that that they can tell the comedian to leave his religious convictions out of his comedy. The families need the money, but I do not want the school breaking the Establishment Clause to get it for them.

My Christian family would not like me doing this, but I have already done stuff that they do not approve of. A few years ago, I came out nonreligious. A few months ago, I came out bisexual. In January, I stopped standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. So after all that, I’m not sure if reporting a church/state violation will do much damage.

If the only way to uphold church/state violation is to full-out cancel the event in April, I would have to let the event happen, because the families need the money. What I would like is the school to “moderate” the event (with the prodding of FFRF).

Secular Student

Dear Secular Student,

I want to commend you for three things. Firstly, your conscientiousness. Nonreligious persons’ efforts to keep religion and government separate are in the interests of everyone’s freedom. Blinded by their privilege, Christians who constantly erode the wall of separation don’t stop to consider that they’re threatening their own freedom in the long run.

Secondly, I commend you for your kindheartedness. This is a classic example of how life puts principled people into situations where two of their principles conflict. Your principle of fairness and justice for all, wanting to keep government from endorsing a religion conflicts with your principle of compassion, wanting to see the bereaved families given the help they need. You’ll face dilemmas like this many times in what I hope will be a long life, and what is clear from your letter will be an exemplary life. Each time there will be no prescribed formula you can fall back on. You’ll have to use your best judgment in every situation, and accept responsibility for the consequences. Fortunately judgment, just like any other skill, gets better with practice.

Finally, I commend you for your courage. Coming out to your family so young with the truth of your being nonreligious, and more recently with the truth of your bisexuality is no small feat. Declining to stand for the pledge is a public expression of principled pluck. You value truthfulness over your own comfort and convenience; honesty over pretense. You are also showing your courage to report this to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Because there’s not much time, definitely write to FFRF right away. Describe your quandary just as you have done here, but don’t identify the school yet. Ask them if they think they can help get the school to remove the religious content from the performance without having to cancel the fundraiser entirely. If what they say leaves you still doubtful, you can wait until the event is over and then report the school’s several violations including the comedian’s performance. Give as much detail as you can about every violation you have seen with names and dates as best you can recall. The fact that the school has a history of this suggests that they might not easily concede and desist, but FFRF can explain to them that if push comes to shove, all that history can be used against them to show a pattern of flouting the law.

Share with FFRF enough of your personal situation so they will appreciate the level of vulnerability that you have at stake. If you’re comfortable doing so, let them know if your coming out as nonreligious and as bisexual was just to your family, or to more people, or to everyone. Let them know when you will turn 18 if you haven’t already.

These situations can often be resolved without resorting to a lawsuit, but if it does, it will be necessary to have a person with “standing.” That means someone who makes a credible complaint that their rights have been injured is named to the court as the complainant. The court can (and often does) agree to keep that person’s identity secret if it is clear that he or she could suffer persecution from the public or the defendants. FFRF can advise you on what they can do, what you can do, and what ways you can protect your privacy.

Hopefully, FFRF can persuade the school to stipulate to the comedian that he must omit all religious material from the performance, or to use a different performer, or to find some other way to raise funds for the families that doesn’t violate the First Amendment. Even if that event has to go ahead unhindered, later you can still help to put a stop to the school’s continuing to violate the law with impunity.

Please write again to update us on how this turns out, and please continue to be the excellent young person you are.

With great admiration,

You may send your questions to Richard right here. Please keep your letters concise, but include pertinent information such as age, relevant financial issues, and significant people in the situation. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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