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Current events reflect belief controversy in school system

Staff March 1, 2012 Opinion No Comments

A wave of intolerance is spreading across this country, and it is leaving death in its wake.
I don’t read the news very often; I’m usually too busy with the down-to-earth details of college life to be bothered. About the only time I do is when I log out of my email and the MSN page comes up. Lately, though, two stories off the page caught my attention.
The more recent of these was about a girl, an 11th-grader, at West Cranston High School in Rhode Island, who was put under regular police protection to guard her from the rest of the town and her own classmates.
Her name is Jessica Ahlquist, and all she did was agree to be the plaintiff in an ACLU-sponsored court case requesting the removal of an 8-foot wide prayer banner from her public school’s gymnasium.
A State Representative, Peter Palumbo, responded by calling her “an evil little thing” in a radio interview.
She was sent death threats online and numerous “burn in hell” letters in the mail.
The day after court proceedings began, the rest of her class turned to glare at her during the Pledge of Allegiance and screamed “Under God!” in her face, while the teacher did nothing.
As tragic as this story is, the other one is far worse. This story takes place in the Anoka-Hennepin school district of Minnesota.
Over the past three years, nine students from the district have killed themselves; all of them suffered from homophobic harassment from their classmates and a lack of action by school authorities.
The school’s policy effectively forbade teachers from commenting on why the harassment was wrong.
Attempts by the persecuted students to form Gay-Straight Alliances as support groups were blocked by school officials because their existence would bring the topic of homosexuality into the school.
As if the bullying, harassment, and suicides hadn’t already.
Thankfully the attempted suicide rate has dropped, the school’s policy has been replaced, and the federal government is investigating. But the problem isn’t over, not by a long shot.
The Anoka-Hennepin school district is within the congressional district of Representative Michelle Bachmann, the same representative who campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination.
The same representative, who has been silent on the deaths of bullying victims, said in 2006 that anti-bullying legislation was “a waste of time.” In 2004, Bachmann attended a rally against gay marriage.
I was a delegate at the Mock Convention, one of those “liberal students” making “a mockery” of it, and I’m damn proud I did.
What this country needs is for its people to set aside party differences and ideologies and give our gay citizenry equal rights, or at the very least equal respect.
I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that part of the Mock Convention platform affirmed the Republican Party’s respect of same-sex couples, even as it denied them marriage rights.
I was appalled when members of the conservative camp pushed for an amendment to remove that mention of respect, and I spoke vehemently against it.
I believe this counter-amendment is representative of the wave of intolerance I spoke of at the beginning of this editorial.
It’s one thing to oppose same-sex civil unions on ‘sanctity of marriage’ grounds. I’d disagree with you there, but that’s a matter for another time, and perhaps another editorial.
But when we live in a society where an atheist can be ostracized and threatened because she stood up for her views and the American Constitution, something is wrong.
When we live in a society where children can be tormented to death because they are gay, or even just thought to be gay, something is wrong.
When we live in a society where a viable presidential candidate is married to a man whose livelihood is based on the idea that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured, and she supports him, something is wrong.
I have no problem with religion and those with religious beliefs. But when public schools use Christian prayer as a declaration of their identity, and are willing to fight to the death to keep it, there is a problem.
When conservative beliefs, drawn from a book thousands of years old, are used to draw a modern line in the sand – a line between who is accepted and who is rejected – there is a serious problem.
This issue is far more important than protecting the supposed religious sanctity of a secular union.
Whatever your views on gay marriage may be, whatever your political affiliation, the children dying in our schools are human beings, and they deserve justice, and an end to the idea that they are anything less than I am or you are. They deserve our respect and support.
How many more kids have to die, or be threatened with death, before we as a nation stand up and say, enough is enough, to the radical religious conservatism that has taken hold of public schools?
Enough to politicians using their religious faith to push for discriminatory social policies.
Enough to the bullying, and to teachers being forced into silence.
Enough to the death threats, and needs for police protection.
Enough to gay students being pushed into their graves by their classmates’ harassment.
Jessica Ahlquist doesn’t stand alone. TJ, Samantha, Aaron, Nick, Kevin, July, Justin, Cole, and Jordan – the Anoka Nine – didn’t die in vain.
A wave of intolerance is spreading across this country, and it is leaving death in its wake.
But we can fight it, and we can end it.

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