Strong Backbone Student Activist Award: Fighting religious entanglement at school
Mary received $1,000 from FFRF for this award, which is endowed by a member who prefers anonymity.
By Mary Ferguson
I am a recent high school graduate from southwest Michigan. Throughout high school, I struggled to fit in with the conservative Christian culture. Religion was in my classroom, cafeteria and integrated in the school board.
During my four years there, I was a member of the school’s Women’s Chorale and Honors Choir. My classmates and I were required to attend multiple Christian Reformed Church services and perform various hymns. At the service, we sat as a captive audience and listened to the sermon. I felt uncomfortable, as the beliefs expressed were very different from my own. On one occasion, the pastor was preaching derogatory messages about people in the LGBT community.
I spoke with my teacher and was told that if I was uncomfortable, I could leave and rejoin the choir when it performed its next song. Although I have strong beliefs, I did not want to be singled out among my peers or judged by my decision to leave. It was a lose-lose situation.
My parents and I wrote a letter to the superintendent in May 2016. He suggested we work through the high school principal first. We did that. The principal immediately forwarded the email to the teacher. She reiterated that the solution was to have me sit out the sermon or do an alternative community singing event on my own. After meeting with the principal again, we were clear that this was not an acceptable solution. The proposed solution was only directed toward me and never formalized as a school policy.
My parents met with the superintendent after this and he seemed to agree that the situation was unacceptable. However, nothing was ever done to address the issue.
It was at this point that I decided to contact FFRF.
After discussing the choir situation, I proceeded to mention other potential church/state violations. I had noticed that youth group leaders and members of the church seemed to roam freely around my school. In one instance, a youth group leader sat next to me at lunch and initiated conversation. I couldn’t help but wonder why this strange adult was hanging out at my lunch table. I also recalled that the school board routinely prays before its board meetings. FFRF immediately notified the school of its church/state violations in an official letter and it is currently working toward a solution.
Although I often face backlash for my actions, speaking out about my school is something that I am proud of. I’m hopeful that permanent changes will be made and future students will be free from church/state entanglements.
“My parents are both freethinkers and I grew up in a secular home,” Mary writes. “It was always comforting knowing that my parents would love and support me for whatever I chose to believe or follow. My family is pretty average, the only difference between my family and a Christian family is that we sleep in on Sundays. After college, I want to attend law school. I am passionate about civil liberties, church/state separation in particular, and intend to help protect them someday.” (“Mary Ferguson” is a pen name.)