A Church-State Victory in Mississippi

English: Norida high school teachers
Norida high school teachers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I trust that you have heard about the latest church-state case in Mississippi by now. The Jackson Public School District received a complaint from the American Humanist Association's Appignani Humanist Legal Center on behalf of a teacher after sectarian (Christian) prayer and preaching were featured at their mandatory three-hour convocation. Apparently, public school teachers employed by the district were required to attend this event and then subjected to explicitly Christian prayer and preaching.

Why is this such a problem? First, this is about a public school district inviting Christian clergy to deliver sectarian prayers and proselytize at an event they sponsored. Public schools are not supposed to be in the business of promoting religion. Second, the district appears to have required their employees to attend this event. So it wasn't just inappropriate proselytizing of the sort government agencies are not allowed to engage in; it was mandatory for district employees. I'm not suggesting it would not be problematic otherwise, but I think it being mandatory for district employees takes it to another level.


Mississippi Needs a Statewide Atheist Organization

Organization design
Organization design (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I started the Mississippi Atheists blog in 2008 to provide a place on the Internet for people looking for information relevant to atheism in the state of Mississippi. I figured that it might be helpful to have a central hub from which to could provide resources and support to Mississippi atheists.

I soon realized that the many limitations on my time and my lack of knowledge of what was happening across our state made me less than ideal to fulfill this goal. I sought to attract co-authors and turn this into more of a group blog. The idea was that we'd have a several atheists living in different parts of the state writing about their experiences periodically. This was successful for awhile, as we had several contributors. Unfortunately, none stuck around for long. By 2012, it was clear that this was no longer working as the group effort I had envisioned. I've evaluated and re-evaluated whether to close Mississippi Atheists many times, deciding in May of 2014 to keep it going for at least another year. My rationale is simple: the demand is there, and having something - even something flawed - seems better than nothing at all.


Mississippi Rep. Palazzo Rejects Church-State Separation

English: Official portrait of Steven Palazzo
Official portrait of Steven Palazzo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Among the ways in which we atheists, humanists, skeptics, and secular individuals need to change Mississippi, one of the most obvious might be strengthening the separation of church and state. We deserve nothing less than a truly secular government (i.e., a government that remains neutral on matters of religion). It is bad enough that we are surrounded by the evangelical fundamentalist Christianity that pervades our culture; we cannot permit our government to promote it.

The gap between the situation we desire and where we are currently was recently illustrated in dramatic fashion by Rep. Steven Palazzo's (R-MS) poor decision to send a Christian bible to every member of Congress along with a letter in which he suggested it would "help guide you in your decision-making."

Perhaps this was little more than pandering. Rep. Palazzo likely knew that the media would pay attention, spreading news of his poor judgment to his Southern Baptist constituents. He certainly knew that many of them would be thrilled with this action. Bending - or even breaking - laws to expand one's political power is not exactly new. In some ways, it may even be better than the alternative explanation.


Facilitating Secular Activism in Mississippi

New Orleans Mardi Gras night in the tourist se...
New Orleans Mardi Gras night in the tourist section of Bourbon Street: Fundamentalist Christian protesters carry signs and shout damnations in crowd of more secular revelers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It is easy to talk about the need to change certain aspects of Mississippi's culture; it is much harder to put together specific examples of how we might go about doing that. In this post, I am going to offer one suggestion for something I believe we should put in place to fuel secular activism in Mississippi now and in the future.

I cannot count the number of times that some sort of church-state violation or other overreach by the fundamentalist Christian majority has taken place in our state without many of us knowing about it until it was too late to do anything. In many of these cases, I suspect that we might have been able to make a difference through organized secular activism (e.g., spreading the word through social media, launching online petitions, contacting elected officials to complain, writing letters to the editor of our local newspapers, alerting national secular organizations that might take an interest, picketing). But we can't do any of these things when we are unaware of the need for them in the first place. We need a centralized, statewide system for distributing relevant action alerts.


Changing Mississippi

St. Paul, Minnesota May 6, 2010 Humanists, ath...
St. Paul, Minnesota May 6, 2010 Humanists, atheists and agnostics held this event in support of the separation of church and state. and as a protest to the government endorsed National Day of Prayer. Fibonacci Blue 2010-05-06 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here in Mississippi, it often seems that we are surrounded by church-state violations. And yet, many of us are reluctant to engage in secular activism. We are constantly bombarded with unwelcome proselytizing from evangelical fundamentalist Christians, but we rarely speak out against it. Our environment is so thoroughly saturated with Christian privilege that it often feels as oppressive as the humidity in late July; however, most of us have invested little if any effort in changing this toxic aspect of our culture.

It is perfectly understandable that we would be reluctant to speak out and to work toward change; this is risky. We worry that engaging in secular activism, identifying ourselves as atheists, or working to change Christian privilege would bring unwelcome consequences. We might lose our jobs, or friends, or even our families. Sadly, these concerns are not as exaggerated as they might appear. After all, this is Mississippi we're talking about.