Activist award: Student calls out state-church violations

This scholarship was generously established by an anonymous FFRF member.

By Janet Roberts

I am a recent graduate of Hamilton High School, which is just southwest of Grand Rapids, Mich. Throughout my high school career, I struggled to fit in with the conservative Christian culture. Religion was found in my classroom, cafeteria and integrated in the school board.

During my four years, I was a member of my 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. During the service, I felt uncomfortable as the beliefs expressed were very different from my own. On one occasion, the pastor was preaching derogatory messages regarding people in the LGBT community. I spoke with my teacher and was told if I was uncomfortable, I could leave and rejoin the choir when it performed the 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 for me.

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 for us. 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. After some thought, I also recalled that the school board routinely prays before meetings. FFRF immediately notified the school of its church/state violations in an official letter and they are currently working toward a solution. (Editor’s note: This case has been resolved favorably.)

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.

‘Refused to stay quiet or back down’

Colin E. McNamara, FFRF’s Robert G. Ingersoll legal fellow, worked on this case with Janet (not her real name). Here’s what he had to say about her:

“Janet was one of the most intelligent, determined and downright tough young activists whom I had the pleasure of working with in my time at FFRF. Janet refused to stay quiet or back down — even when she faced backlash from staff, students and her community. Since she wrote this piece, I have communicated extensively with counsel for the school district to ameliorate these issues. In response, the administration has taken extensive steps to ensure that this pattern of religious entanglement does not recur — and it’s all thanks to Janet and her courage. She did the right thing, and because of her tireless work documenting and reporting the myriad constitutional violations at her school, future generations of students won’t have to endure the creeping coercive pressure of religious indoctrination that she did.

“I’m so very proud of her, and I see great things in her future. She tells me that she wants to go to law school after undergrad and that she’s acquired an interest in state-church separation law, so I suspect we’ve not heard the last from this exceptional young woman.”