You may remember the story of Jessica Ahlquist, the Rhode Island teen who was viciously bullied and threatened by Christians all over the country for trying to get an unconstitutional religious banner removed from her school. Jessica's story is both terrifying and inspirational, because she won her case, and has gone on to become something of a celebrity in the secular community.
Over the last few weeks, a similar story has been unfolding in North Carolina. Kalei Wilson, a student at Pisgah High School, wanted to start an atheist club. School officials weren't having any of that, and stonewalled the process, going against both school policy and legal precedent. The Secular Student Alliance, Freedom from Religion Foundation, and ACLU all brought their considerable influence to bear, and the school quickly saw the light of reason, and agreed to allow the club to form.
Sadly, one of the things we've seen in recent years is that many Christians are not content to obey the law when it comes to atheists. If they don't get their way, they often resort to bullying, harassing, and even making death threats. So it has gone in North Carolina. Just days after learning that she could move forward with the club, Kalei's family released the following statement:
It saddens us to report that due to the numerous threats and the verbal attacks on Kalei along with the vindictive which-hunt (sic) to hurt the reputations of affiliated local groups and our own family, Kalei will not be continuing with the group.
We have contacted GoFundMe and requested they return your generous donations. They have assured us that your funds will show back up in your respective accounts within 3 to 5 days.
Your love and support are priceless and we apologize in letting you down. It was our single goal to support Kalei in her efforts to start the much needed SSA club.
However, we never expected our family and friends to be sought out and demonized. Please know that we recognize the importance of the club but we can not justify our involvement with the risk of our families safety and well being.
It's a sad ending, to be sure. One can hardly blame Kalei and her family for doing what they need to do to protect themselves. If anything, they should be praised for having the guts to try it in the first place. They probably knew about Jessica Ahlquist's ordeal, and must have known that there was real risk. The reality in America is that to be openly atheist is to live as a second-class citizen. Good on them for doing what they believed was right even though they knew things could get really ugly.
Some people may look at this as a failure, but I do not. In fact, in terms of social justice, I think it's great that it happened, aside from the trauma the family suffered. The main reason it's a good thing in the big picture is the publicity. I'm not the first person to write about this, and I won't be the last. This story is all over the place, and secularists all over the country are reaching out and offering support and solidarity. This is strengthening the secular community, and reinforcing its resolve. These kinds of Christians can no longer bully in secret or with impunity. Their behavior is out there for everybody to see, and boy, is it ugly.
There's a term for someone who suffers severe persecution over a personal belief, and Christians should know it well. It's "martyr." Early Christian stories celebrate those who were bullied, threatened, and even killed in the name of belief. Every savvy politician knows that one of the most dangerous things for the ruling party to create is a martyr around which the oppressed can rally. These Christian bullies are now part of the oppressing majority, and have adopted the role of the Romans in the old stories. They would do well to remember who won in the end.
Let's speak plainly about the Christian Right in recent years. They're seen as self-righteous bullies by a lot of people. Especially young people. They've become infamous for discriminating and oppressing while claiming they're actually the victims of abuse. One need only look at the recent veto of Arizona's religiously inspired "anti-gay bill" to see it play out.
People aren't buying it anymore. Stories like this illustrate very clearly who are the real bullies. Kalei wasn't trying to stop anyone from doing anything. She wasn't trying to shut down a Christian club. She was trying to create a place for her friends to hang out after school and work on their own interests. For that, she and her family were persecuted, bullied, and threatened to such a degree that they backed down. There is no shame for her or her family, but there is immense shame to be heaped on those who did the bullying.
It is sad that there will be no atheist club at Pisgah High School for the time being. It is appalling that yet again, Christians resorted to mob justice when the law disagreed with them. Even so, there is much to celebrate, because this battle is part of a much bigger culture war, and the story itself is a powerful tool for atheists in their quest for equality in America. Good on you, Kalei, and thank you for everything you've done. I'm sure we've not heard the last of you.