SEP 13 2013, 9:01 AM ET
Earlier this year, while no one was looking, Gage Pulliam took a photo of a plaque that listed the Ten Commandments, as it hung on the wall of his Oklahoma high school's biology classroom.
Pulliam emailed the photo, anonymously, to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They then sent a complaint to the school district, which asked Muldrow High School to take down the plaque.
The taste of justice was, for a moment, sweet on Pulliam’s godless tongue. Untilstudents protested . By later in the week, his peers had compiled hundreds of signatures on petitions to save the Commandments plaque. The Muldrow Ministerial Alliance began giving away shirts that bore the Ten Commandments, in support of the protest. Parents got into the fray, too. Denise Armer said taking down the plaque was "going too far ... What happened to freedom of religion, and not from religion?"
The protesters began speculating as to who was responsible for the instigating photo. Speculative whispers became cries. When some of Pulliam's friends–who were among the cohort of openly areligious students at Muldrow High–started feeling heat, Pulliam outed himself on an atheist blog. Sacrificing himself to so that he might save others, Pulliam admitted that he was the one who sent the photo.
Pulliam later said that in the wake of his confession, his mother worried for his safety. She also worried that his teachers might grade him differently. His sister, an eighth-grader, said other students wouldn’t look at her, and "in one instance she couldn’t even get a class project done because her group members refused to talk to her." Other students "told Gage’s girlfriend that he should stay from them or else they’ll punch him."
Pulliam's justification for taking the photo in the first place: “I want people to know this isn’t me trying to attack religion. This is me trying to create an environment for kids where they can feel equal.”
The Secular Student Alliance (SSA) is an educational nonprofit advocacy group. They have 393 affiliated student groups on U.S. high school and college campuses. That number has doubled in the last four years. Their stated purpose is to “organize and empower nonreligious students” and “foster successful grassroots campus groups which provide a welcoming community for secular students to discuss their views and promote their secular values.” This month they launched a program, primarily in high schools, intended to counter situations like Pulliam’s, which they say are commonplace.
The Secular Safe Zoneinitiative is designed to create “safe, neutral places for students to talk about their doubts without fear of religious bullying.” That’s done by recruiting "allies” and training them to recognize and respond to anti-atheist bullying. The initiative is modeled off of Gay Alliance’sLGBT Safe Zone program, which was started several years ago, in that it allows mentors at schools to explicitly demarcate spaces where “students know that bullying won’t be tolerated.”
School faculty members who affiliate with the program never have to say a thing; they hang the yellow, green, pink, and blue emblem, and students come to them.
“It's shocking how often people tell secular students that they don't belong in America,” Jesse Galef, communications director for the SSA told me. “Sometimes there are threats of violence against students who openly identify as atheists … We’re calling on supportive role models nationwide to stand up for these students." That can include “teachers, guidance counselors, librarians, RAs, even chaplains, who want to create safe places for people to discuss their doubts and be open about their identities.”
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