By Jordan Anderson, ACLU Plaintiff
In late 2011, the ACLU and ACLU of South Carolina brought a lawsuit against Chesterfield County School District on behalf of student Jordan Anderson and his father, Jonathan Anderson. The lawsuit sought to put a stop to the school district’s widespread religious freedom violations, including official prayer at school events, school-day assemblies featuring preaching, and displays of religious symbols such as crosses and the Ten Commandments. The lawsuit resulted in a consent decree restoring religious freedom to all district students. Jordan’s blog is part of this week’s “Religious Freedom Goes to School” blog series.
In September 2011, my school, New Heights Middle School, put on a major religious event. During an assembly, a minister gave a sermon to students, Christian rapper B-SHOC performed religious songs, and students were asked to fill out a form saying that they had accepted Jesus as their savior. Students who did not want to attend the religious assembly were told that their only other option was to sit in the in-school suspension room for the afternoon.
As an atheist, I felt very uncomfortable about going to the assembly, but I also did not think it was fair that if I didn’t go I would have to go to the in-school suspension room. It seemed like I was being punished just because I did not want attend a religious event. So, I went to the rally.
As we walked to the assembly, I told my teacher that I was not looking forward to it because I am an atheist. Her response? She told me, “I wouldn’t brag about that.” This lit a fire under me.
It wasn’t the first or last time the school disrespected my beliefs and tried to push religion on me. There were other school assemblies with religious speakers and even prayers led by the principal. Teachers ordered me to copy essays stating that I believe in God and thank God every day. And in case that wasn’t clear enough, Christian religious symbols hung throughout the school.
While I am not religious, I am not anti-Christian or anti-religious, but it’s not easy being a non-believer in my school. It wasn’t until the fifth grade that I opened up to people that I was an atheist. I had seen the hardships that other atheists had faced –being bullied, cussed out, or even ignored. I did not fully realize at the time what I would have to face. Sometimes it seemed like freedoms didn’t apply to everyone.
As a sixth grader, I entered the doors of New Heights Middle School expecting full respect for my beliefs because I have respected other people’s beliefs even if they bullied me. But unfortunately people who are different are not liked here. In seventh grade, I began to see the prejudice streaming through the school halls.
I started to hate myself and thought about converting to Christianity, not because I wanted to, but because of the bullying that I had gone through. There were many problems that year, but the prejudice and pushing of religion were the worst. I started not caring about school anymore. I couldn’t understand why, if I respected other people’s beliefs, they couldn’t respect mine.
The Christian assembly was the last straw. I began to get very upset with the people who were trying to push religion on me. As angry as I was, I would soon calm down and realize that anger would get me nowhere.
Instead, I knew that I had to speak out and do something about it. With the help of the ACLU, I sued the school district for violating my constitutional rights. I was relieved when the school district did the right thing by agreeing to stop its illegal activities.
After the lawsuit, I was exhilarated, ecstatic. It was like a whole new start. I eventually became less of a target of bigotry. I had sued the school district for a grand total of $2, but the outcome was priceless. Life as an atheist in a public school has become better. I am finally able to breathe freely. I now live a happy and confident life with my mom, dad, and brother, who gave me the strength to go through the bullying and supported me through the lawsuit. I could not have a better family anywhere. Life is great for me now. I am glad I stood up for what I believe in and I hope that my experience will help make life better for other kids as well.