My ‘school voucher’ protest adventure with American Atheists

Here is Senator Williams using his ‘bully pulpit’ specifically addressing American Atheist members who were protesting this school voucher rally led by Christians.

Highlights:

0:45, 0:50 I cheer ‘yah’ when Williams says “the bill is going down”

1:00 “The only thing going down is that this bill is passing.” (?)

0:11 “We’re going to get our government back from the people who’ve stolen it from us.” (?)

1:20 “Those […] who sit in the corner (he refers to the atheists) [..] wanna show up at rallies like this and tell me what my rights are”

1:45 “Some of the gentleman to our left…” (referring to the atheists)

3:10 I cheer when Senator Williams mentions Ed Rendell

3:18 (addressing me) “You need to check the record, my friend.”

3:25 (addressing me) “You go back to […] your community of privilege […] and you send your kids to whatever school you want to send your kids to be it an atheist school or not…

3:54 “By the way, this is my rally not yours. Have one for you and bring all your children. …to the hecklers on the left-hand side.”

4:02 “These are our dollars, not just yours. These are our children, not yours. These are our school systems, not yours and by the way, this has nothing to do with separation of church and state.”

4:40 “Before you show up to a place where I speak, you should know what you’re talking about. Don’t show up with a sorry sign and a weak argument, come and show up with the facts.”

**

Today, thanks to Carl Silverman (a board member for PA Nonbelievers), PA Nonbelievers (for having me in the Harrisburg area at this time), and Ernest Perce V (American Atheists’ PA State Director), I attended a rally in the state capitol building that was supportive of ‘school choice’ and a voucher program that the current PA governor is supporting. I showed for this American Atheists protest with a dissenting opinion. My sign said “Separate Church and State.”

Upon arriving at the capitol — and well before the rally supporting ‘school choice’ — Ernest talked with the security at the building to make sure that we would be protected (because there were recently physical attacks against atheists inside the capitol) and that we were well within our rights to hold up signs promoting a dissenting opinion because the building is a free speech zone. Security cleared us and told us that we could stand on the side, in the front, and right next to media members who were recording. I held my sign high in the air and eventually, while I wasn’t paying too much attention, a woman slipped in front of me intentionally blocking my sign (thus silencing my speech and not allowing me to share my message).

I asked her to stop holding her sign in front of me and she refused. More people then appeared in front of me. People behind me started to complain that I was blocking their view when I moved my sign to ‘compete’ with the persons in front of me. A security officer ultimately appeared and did nothing about the woman in front of me.

I’m quite astonished. Persons all throughout the rotunda had signs saying ‘support school choice’ and so much more. My objective was not to silence their message. My objective was not to interrupt the rally. My objective was not to say, “Hey, you shouldn’t here.” As I argue in my post about ‘the marketplace of ideas,’ I’m quite happy to see persons expressing their ideas…as long as there is room for dissent when it is appropriate. Have your message…but I better have mine. I simply wanted the same opportunity that everyone else had in a free speech zone, but this drew the ire of the persons at this rally and even atheists on Facebook!

A few weeks ago, I wrote, in a blog post on American Atheists’ “No God Blog,”

No matter how mild our messages may be and how legally justified [or morally justified] atheists may be in marching in paradesflying banners in the month of July, or speaking about science books at country clubs, the cacophony of complaints can be heard from Christians who want to censor us. Messages similar to those of Good Without Godand ‘Don’t believe in God, Join The Club!’ are, to some, ‘offensive‘ and shouldn’t be displayed in public. The fact that atheists exist, it seems, is not permissible for some. Never mind the fact that Christians display messages about hellfire and pictures of aborted fetuses on highways across America. Never mind preachers who claim that atheists cannot be good citizens or are the mortal enemies of Christians.

Christians are also quick to complain about how “God is being taken out of the public square” and demand that their messages – even when they are flagrantly religious in a governmental setting and exclusionary – be shown in public, but when atheists want to be represented, the standards suddenly change. The hypocrisy, one can see, is tremendous and deeply problematic.

[…]

Atheists should have the same rights as Christians to present their ideas – within reason – in pluralistic societies. Messages should simply not be censored because those in a position of privilege and power happen to disagree, have negative impressions of atheists, or whatever reason. If Christianity is so justified, as its proponents claim, what is the harm in having dissenting ideas presented and why should Christians worry so much? Christians can, as 1 Peter 3:15 suggests, defend their beliefs [thus responding to atheistic messages]. It’s very unfortunate, though, that this often isn’t the case. Instead of debate, censorship and exclusion is often the ‘order of the day.’ Silencing your‘opposition,’ though, is the coward’s way out.

How is showing up at a rally in a free speech zone with a sign saying “Separate Church and State” ‘disrespectful,’ ‘offensive,’ or in any way uncalled for? I wasn’t screaming at people, I was not disruptive, and I was not censoring their message by any means. They could have simply ignored me…and actually decided not to.

A woman behind me started talking to me and I told her that I can’t understand why taxpayer monies should be sent to parents who send their children to religious schools that have no opt-out [of prayer] option. I mentioned that some schools force children to pray and this is a problem for many reasons, but mainly, perhaps, because the state’s constitution says that no one should be compelled to worship a deity. The woman hilariously responded by not even addressing my argument – she said, “public schools indoctrinate children, too.” I asked her what children in public schools are being indoctrinated in. “Science?” I asked. She said no. History? Sometimes? Mathematics? Sometimes. Huh? Regardless, two wrongs don’t make a right…

I can’t imagine how me holding a sign ‘protesting’ a rally was such a bad thing.

***

Some commenters on Facebook had the following to say… I will address their points one by one.

They’re talking about having a choice to send their children to a religious school, if they want to. They weren’t talking about having atheists there, were they? That would probably include atheist parents having a choice of whether their children should go to a religious school or not, or even having more of a choice of where their child can go to school.

So what if the rally was not ‘for atheists?’ This person mentions that “[t]hat would probably include atheist parents having a choice…” and this is my point, really. Taxpayers’ money is everyone’s money. Why should some of my money be going to schools which I do not want to fund? Further, how is sending children to religious schools going to fix the alleged egregious problems in state education? Vouchers aren’t the only option here; how about we give more incentives for persons to go into teaching and refine the employment process (since so many people argue about ‘bad teachers’). How about we spend money upgrading technology, textbooks, and the actual infrastructure of public schools? Are the schools and teachers really even the problems anyway … or is the problem multi-faceted? I would imagine that this is not simple.

All you are doing is going to something, being rude, being disrespectful, and causing a ruckus.

No, I wasn’t doing any of these things. I simply stood there with a sign that said ‘Separate Church and State” with text from the PA constitution.

And no, I will not play your game and dispute this. Your rhetoric is one that I do not value, sir, for it is disrespectful by infringing upon the rights and freedoms of others to have their own choices and make their own decisions.

By posting you are disputing this. How am I being disrespctful, anyway? How am I infringing on the rights and freedoms of others? I’m not stopping people from making decisions by any means whether the issue be attending the rally in protest or opposing school vouchers. Why don’t religious institutions fund the students instead of taxpayer monies going to these sectarian initiatives and taking money out of the public schools?

Yes, you have your own freedoms. You can speak however you want. However, if you are rude about it, you close down the minds of others you wish to talk to because you are being rude.

How is being rude closing down the minds of others I wish to talk to? Anyway, I was not being rude at all. I simply stood there holding a sign in protest with a very inoffensive message.

If you truly wish to change others’ opinions, my best suggestion is to be thoughtful and respect their positions on it. There are some people you cannot change because they will not let you. There are others who can be swayed. There are some who are willing to have a debate (civil, mind you) about the topic. But you shouldn’t be disrespecting other citizens, because it infringes upon their own rights to have choices.

I don’t understand what ‘respecting positions means.’ It seems like this commenter is arguing that I am doing something morally wrong by voicing disagreement, but I don’t see how this is the case at all. In so, so, so, so many cases I go out of my way to respect persons and make sure that I be as charitable as possible. While every now and then I might ‘go after’ some public figures, crack some jokes, etc, I don’t understand how I’m viewed as someone who is being disrespectful.

I don’t ‘go into’ anything with the intention of ‘changing minds.’ I simply put my ideas out there, critique arguments, and write about why I believe what I believe and so not believe. The ultimate ‘choice’ is on the person to ‘change his/her mind,’ for I can’t compel. If someone wants to read what I have to say, they can do that. No one is forced to read what I have to write by any means. What’s the argument about me at the rally? Was me sign somehow taking away someone’s freedoms? If anything, the persons blocking me from showing my sign were doing that to me and the governmental entity there did nothing to prevent this.

You’re being like the Jehovah Witnesses, who go door to door. You’re bothering them with questions. I’m not even trying to be rude to the Jehovah Witnesses. You’re just going out of your way to butt into other people’s beliefs, which they have a right to think and feel.

This is a really bad analogy…and what is so bad about going door to door anyway? If persons don’t want to talk, they don’t have to. Shame on JW’s … for wanting to talk to people? Most of what I do is writing online; I don’t go door to door ‘spreading atheism’ interrupting person’s normal activities, being pushy, etc. Am I somehow ‘taking away person’s rights’ by challenging their ideas [or holding a sign at a rally?]

I also don’t go butting into some school voucher meeting that you really can’t do anything about–people have their beliefs, and they will do what they think is right.

What’s wrong with protesting a rally when American Atheists members have permission to do so? I actually CAN do something about an issue and protesting this rally was a great way to do so. Many people saw our signs, we were interviewed by media, and — as you see above — atheists specifically ‘called out.’ We also had a chance to argue with people afterwards, got support from some people, and attended the following speech by former governor Ed Rendell (and obviously got more support there).

Why take this attitude of ‘people have their beliefs and will do what they think is right’ in this area while we clearly do not in others? I doubt that you would rebuke teachers who — first and foremost — challenge the beliefs of many people. While the teacher-student relationship and the rally-protester relationship is much different, the aim (or one of the aims) of both is to ‘put ideas out there’ in order for persons to consider new perspectives and examine their own beliefs.

They just want more people to have more choices with schools.

I would like to have this too, but the voucher program, I think, is not the proper way to allow more choices with schools.

Sure, some religious parents will force their children to go to religious schools before the children have the ability to choose for themselves–but that’s life.

But that’s life? That’s not a good attitude! Childhood indoctrination is a huge problem. While we can’t or won’t eliminate this, it is good to try and do something to combat it. I would hate to see taxpayer dollars (including my money) going to parents to send their children into ‘state sponsored indoctrination’ [this is how Ernest Perce V phrases it and I would agree] and, at the same time, see money go away from public schools exasperating the problem that these ‘school choice’ proponents have identified. The way to fix the problems with public schools (and they do exist) is not to ‘ignore’ the problem by ‘taking money away’ from the public schools.

Some right-leaning (and left-leaning) libertarians, on this matter of ‘school choice,’ would say that persons already do have the choice of sending their children to different schools and might say that they can move to a new location or fund the education themselves instead of expecting the government to do it.

The proponents of ‘school choice’ miss several key items to consider when they mention their talking points of ‘being locked into zip codes,’ ‘bad teachers,’ and ‘failing schools.’ The problem with schools is multi-faceted and can’t just be blamed on ‘bad teachers,’ ‘failing schools,’ and being ‘locked into zip codes.’ Societal problems such as lack of focus on education, early unplanned pregnancy/parents having children when they can’t properly provide, and much more should be considered here; it is not that simple. I don’t have all the answers — or perhaps even many or any — but an appropriate response to ‘public schools are failing’ should not be ‘send money to parents to send their children to religious schools.’

Is this really about the education for these people, Carl Silverman wonders…
Many areas can simply only have Catholic schools, for instance, as an ‘alternative’ to public schools (although homeschooling is an option at points)…and this is a huge problem as far as these vouchers are concerned (among many). What ‘competition’ really exists when there is a lack of secular private schools, schools of other religions, and much more?

You can’t even hope to shut down every single religious school, can you? That seems to be the only solution I can think of to that school problem.

This is not the intention at all…at it certainly isn’t the only solution.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia.

He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events.

Vacula received bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County’s Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher’s assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.

  • Rudy

    Hi. The separation of church and state is one of a handful of specifically enumerated rights in the US Constitution. I’m with you.

  • Cathryn Smith

    I was just researching this bill for my own blog post and I noticed, curiously enough, that the PA Counsel of Churches is against the bill. They feel it is illegal under PA law but also object to taking money away from the public schools and have other objections, as well. (Article here: http://pachurchesadvocacy.org/weblog/?p=7364)I will be writing my PA representatives objecting to the bill on the grounds that I believe it is unconstitutional for our tax-dollars to fund religious education. I seriously cannot understand how anyone would believe this is not in violation of the separation of church and state.

  • I disagree. I don’t think he was “being rude” in their minds. The minds you speak of are those of bigots who hate others for not agreeing with them. It wouldn’t matter what he said if it disagreed with them, they would still hate him.This is different than saying he is rude. He is not the aggressor; they are.

  • msn

    To quote the caveman in the GEICO commercial “Next time do a little research! ” School vouchers are the same as other government programs like Social Security or Medicare. Taxpayer money is not given to schools, rather it is given to citizens who then have the choice as to where they use the money. For example a citizen receiving social security funds can choose to spend the money wherever he/she wants. In fact they can place the entire amount in the collection basket at any church they choose. Furthermore, students receiving government funded grants can choose to attend any uiniversity they choose including Notre Dame, Yeshiva university or any other religious, public, private university they choose. Finally and this is where the writer’s entire argument falls apart, the PA Constitution clearly states that no funds raised for public education can be sent to religious institutions. No disputing that. However the money funding school vouchers comes from the state’s general fund which has no such restrictions, So the school voucher bill passes constitutional muster. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled on this issue in an Ohio case. SB 1 is modeled after the Ohio law. Finally the simplicity and failure of your separation of church and state argument is only surpasssed by your short sighted and uninformed formula for “fixing” public schools. There are many powerful forces that because of their own narrow self interests won’t let that happen. “Fixing public schools won’t happen overnight or for many years. In fact this so called “fix” has been in the works for decades. In the meantime millions of children continue to be ill prepared to compete in a global economy. So for all of you that oppose school vouchers which will at least give the most at risk and disadvantged studens a fighting chance, I ask you what do you tell them? Oh I know- wait. I guarantee you if your child was locked into a failing, violent school you would do all you could to get her out. Well some people have neither the financial wherewithal to move or to pay for a better school. School vouchers give them the boost they need. So as I said next time do a little research. Perhaps you might want to talk to some of the parents fighting for school vouchers. For them it is a matter of their child’s future. Whereas for you it is merely an academic, abstract exercise.

  • GCT

    I wasn’t implying that he was rude. I would have thought that the full context of my paragraph above would have made that clear, but perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. So, let me clarify that I agree with you. (Perhaps I should have said that in many people’s erroneous opinions that are steeped in their religious privilege?)

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