Bonnie Erbe, an excellant columnist whose work appears often on one of my news web sites, filed an interesting piece this week on a religious harassment case involving Blacksburg Middle School.
Judith Scott probably never set out to be a First Amendment heroine. But she is as far as I’m concerned. Scott has filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia for what she claims was a retaliatory firing. Her proselytizing boss at the Blacksburg, Va. Middle School, whose acts are detailed in her court filing, kept trying to force her to participate in unlawful prayer meetings and religious events at work.
I learned about Scott in the Collegiate Times, the campus newspaper of Virginia Tech. Driving to Blacksburg from Washington, D.C., one passes signs for Christendom College and other reminders that one is traversing Bible country. Small towns dot the angled landscape of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The Times reports that Scott was asked by her supervisor whether an unnamed person could "pray for her" and she complied out of a sense of pressure. She later declined to attend a religious conference with faculty members and was deluged by them with Christian-themed DVDs and audiotapes upon their return.
"The suit alleges that the supervisor would dim the library’s lights, hold prayer meetings, ‘anoint’ the premises and ‘lay hands’ on those present. The supervisor would also leave ‘praise’ sticky notes and daily Bible verses around for Scott to see."
The Times goes on to describe the pressure put on Scott to practice Christianity in what became a hostile work environment. It never explains whether Scott is a non-believer or a believer of a different faith. But she clearly put up with a huge amount of religious harassment before she filed her lawsuit.
She took her case first to the assistant school board superintendent and was offered a transfer to another facility. But she stood her ground and said she wanted to continue working as a media aid assistant right where she was, as she had done nothing wrong. That takes guts! When her contract ended it was not renewed. She claimed she was in essence, fired, in retaliation for her complaints.
I’m not surprised Scott came under attack by religious zealots. Whenever I dare write something that suggests a minister or religious fanatic has overstepped their bounds my email box fills with messages of hate in the name of God and I often find religious material slid under the door of my studio.
It does surprise me, however, that this happened in Blacksburg, home of a giant state university and a community supposedly more enlightened when it comes to the First Amendment and religious freedom.
Our founding fathers had the right idea when it came to separation of church and state. Everyone has a right to believe or not believe in a supreme being. Everyone has a right to practice or not practice religion. No one has a right to force their religious beliefs on others.
We often find religious material on our doorstep, left by those who see themselves as traveling salesmen for God. A black hearse often cruises the streets of Floyd, covered with signs warning us that doomsday is coming and urging us to get right with the Lord. Local ministers use the power of their pulpit to stop the Commonwealth from opening an ABC store in Floyd or to attempt to stop a microbrewery from opening.
At least one of our supervisors demands to know where candidates from office stand on requiring prayer in schools. He thinks it should be mandated.
President Bush’s eight-year tenure, in which religion formed and mis-formed federal laws, trumped science in federal policy and even may have been partly responsible for launching an unsuccessful war, allowed situations such as Scott’s to flourish throughout the land. This is hardly the only way in which the Bush presidency took us back 50 years. It is, however, a dominant theme of his tenure as is the takeover of the Republican Party by the religious right.
Judith Scott is hardly alone. One need only peruse the Web sites of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (au.org) or the Freedom From Religion Foundation (ffrf.org) to find documentation of countless instances of religious discrimination perpetrated, even encouraged, during the Bush years. Americans United has a nine-point agenda it is asking Obama to follow. The group is asking him to ban faith-based job bias (as faced by Scott), restrict faith-based funding and end school vouchers (which are nothing but a federal bonanza for Christian and religious schools.)
Religion is a personal matter. So is an individual’s relationship with God or whatever supreme being he or she may or may not accept.
A few years ago, a young man with religious sayings pinned to his clothing became a familiar sight in downtown Floyd. He approached me on day and, in a loud voice, asked: "Have you found God?"
I looked at him in shock: "Lord no! Is he missing?"
No, God isn’t missing. He’s just waiting for us at home.