An open letter to Wes Bryant in response to the article, “Houston County School System Receives Complaint Regarding Graduation Prayer”.
First, thank you for your service to our country. Any man who willingly puts himself in harm’s way in order to defend my freedom as an American citizen is a man whom I respect. It would be my preference to correspond with you personally regarding the issues I will address in this letter because of the deep respect I have for your service in the military. However, since your complaint regarding recent graduation services in Houston County has become a subject of public debate I felt compelled to respond publicly. Additionally, it seems the intent of the filed compliant is for a public discourse on the subject, so, again, I will respond in that manner. I fully admit that I am basing my response off just a few quotes from the local newspaper, so if in the following letter I assume too much or misstate your position I apologize and would gladly receive correction.
Let me first define your position as an atheist, as clarity on the position is imperative to a meaningful dialogue. Atheism is a belief in the absence of God. While atheism is a secular worldview, it is nonetheless a worldview that shapes the way people see the world around them. It is secular, but not a scientific discipline (while it may be informed by science like other worldviews and religions). Additionally, atheism defines itself in comparison to religion. The word “atheist” means “without God.” In this regard, atheism, though not holding to a religion, is a statement on religion. Again, if this is an unfair definition of your position, I would accept appropriate correction.
From this worldview, you are advocating an absence of the mention of God from the graduation services in our county. This is an understandable position for you to advocate, since it is consistent with your worldview, atheism. The absence of God (or mention of God) is the foundation for the way you see the world. It could be argued that since atheism is a denial of God, it is also a statement concerning religion. Therefore, the absence of religious prayers and activities at a high school graduation is a statement or stance on religion, in a similar way to including them. To advocate for the absence of God from a ceremony that has traditionally included prayers, is to advocate for a particular stance on a religious issue.
And here is the rub, you are actually not campaigning for legality or fairness, but for your worldview to be the worldview of the Houston County Board of Education. In other words, you are fighting for your personal belief system to be the one supported and espoused above other possible worldviews or positions, religious or irreligious. The request seems to be for the school board to advocate an atheist position over any other belief system. Understandably, you may disagree with this point, so let me explain my understanding of the legal and Constitutional issue, which may help clarify this position as well.
The beauty of the Constitution is it does not prevent the influence of religion or promote the absence of religion in the public square or the private lives of American citizens. It does confine the state’s ability to restrict an individual’s right to hold whatever religious beliefs they choose. This means you may hear people talk about God, but you do not have to believe in that God. You may hear Tom Cruise discuss secretly revealed divine inner truth or, even, in the classroom, hear positions taught that have clear religious or worldview implications. The government does not, however, require its citizens to hold one certain religious position. Neither does it restrain civil liberties from those who reject a certain religious position.
In our case, religious affiliation does not determine whether a student may or may not graduate from high school. A belief in the Christian God is not necessary to be able to attend a school in Houston County. Participation in a public prayer directed toward the Christian God is not mandated, either. In school, like other arenas, students are not free from the influence of religion, neither are they free from the influence of secular humanism, or naturalism, but they do get to make their own choices about what they believe.
Additionally, the Constitution does not promise that American citizens will not be personally offended. In fact, it almost does the opposite. Allowing everyone the freedom of speech insures that during my life as an American citizen I will hear viewpoints that I disagree with and will find offensive. The difference is that in the United States I am guaranteed the freedom to personally reject any viewpoint, religious belief, or worldview. I believe you will want to agree with me on this point because the implications of denying this freedom are as grave for an atheist as they are for a theist. If, for example, an atheist student intended to include remarks about the moral relativism or the self reliance of enlightened free thinkers in a valedictorian address, they could be censured for making statements concerning religion, namely the exclusion of God. As argued above, these are religious statements.
Finally, I would also like for you to help me understand the nature of the offense in this particular instance. A student prayed to God, which an atheist believes to be a mythical creature. I can understand your disagreement with the prayer, but not your anger. Someone talking to a non-existent creature has never offended me. I might think they are crazy or smoked too much pot in college, but I wouldn’t find it offensive or be angered by it. If the student had prayed to the Tooth Fairy or if Dr. Hines had encouraged students to maintain a strong faith in the Easter Bunny, would you have found it equally offensive? It would seem that the proper response of a consistent atheist to such a prayer would be sympathy or pity for the misguided, uninformed, and ignorant babbling of a theist high school student to his or her imaginary friend.
These three observations lead me to the following conclusion. Your appeal to the Constitution is a smoke screen for the true motivation, which is for your personal preference on religion to be advocated by our school board. I would also conclude that the organization you contacted to assist in your complaint, Freedom From Religion Foundation, has a similar intention. In fact, it is implied in their name, which changes the wording of the constitutional principle from “freedom of religion” to “freedom from religion,” telegraphing their agenda. The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” As a citizen of this county I feel very strongly that fairness and freedom should be upheld. However, I do not regard personal, politically motivated agendas as an appropriate basis for our local government making changes of this magnitude. Especially, when the true intent to such appeals are as evident as in this case. I would urge you to reconsider your position on this matter.
Looking forward to a further dialogue,
Graduate of Houston County High School, Class of 1998