MS Gulf Coast Atheist and Freethinking Association April Meetup

The Mississippi Gulf Coast Atheist and Freethinking Association has scheduled their April meetup for Sunday, April 11 at 3:00 pm in Gulfport. For details, see the group's page.

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Itawamba County School District Makes Mississippi Look Bad

PromLogo.gifAs you know, Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, MS, recently told Constance McMillen that she could not attend her prom with her girlfriend and that she could not come dressed in a tuxedo. The school also informed Ms. McMillen that even if she dressed as they wanted and arrived by herself, she might be thrown out if she was seen slow-dancing with her girlfriend. Plain and simple, this is bigotry. Ms. McMillen was treated differently on the basis of her sexual orientation.

Being more courageous than many high school students, Ms. McMillen decided to stand up for her rights. She contacted the ACLU and asked for help. The ACLU came to her assistance, sending a letter to the school board requesting that she be permitted to attend the prom just like any other student at her school. The school board considered the letter and decided to do what few expected - they cancelled the entire prom.

Is this really how great fear of "teh gay" is in the Mississippi of 2010? Evidently so. My guess, and this is pure speculation, is that the board was worried about Christian parents of children who attended Itawamba Agricultural not being able to handle the idea of their kids seeing two lesbians dancing at their prom.

What people need to realize is that this is precisely the sort of thing that makes Mississippi look bad to the rest of the country. Our image as a bigoted, ignorant backwater hurts us economically and serves to deter the sort of businesses we claim we want from moving here. It also drives more and more people to leave the state as soon as they are able.

The ACLU has now filed a lawsuit against the school district in the form of Constance McMillen v. Itawamba County School District. The suit asks the district to reinstate the prom for all students and claims that district officials violated Ms. McMillen’s First Amendment rights by determining who she could take to prom, what she could wear, etc.

A hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction is scheduled for Monday, March 22.

H/T to A Passion to Understand

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What Do We Want?

When it comes to the plight of atheists in Mississippi, what do we want? If there was an atheist movement of some sort in Mississippi, what would be the goals of such a movement? Some of what I would like to see in the relative short term include:
  • Recognition that bigotry toward atheists is still bigotry and no more acceptable than any other sort of bigotry.
  • Equal rights for atheists under the law.
  • An erosion of Christian privilege, including recognition that church-state separation applies to Christianity just as it does other religions.
  • The ability for atheists in our state to express themselves without any more fear of assault or vandalism than Christians experience in our state.
Most of the other goals I have for Mississippi are only peripherally related to atheism. When it comes to atheism, I think this brief list just about covers it. What did I miss?

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Americans United Warns Tuscaloosa County About Sectarian Prayers

According to their press release, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has warned members of the Tuscaloosa County Commission (Alabama) to abide by the state’s records-request law or face the consequences.
More than a year ago, attorneys with Americans United wrote to the County Commission requesting documents related to the county officials’ practice of opening its meetings with sectarian prayers. There has been no response.

Americans United believes the commission’s prayer practice may be unconstitutional and has requested more information about it. Under state law, county officials are required to provide the information AU seeks “on demand.”
The initial Americans United investigation started after Tuscaloosa County residents complained that government officials were leading sectarian prayers.

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Mississippi Does Little to Change Backward Image

Tuxedo_.jpgBy now, I suspect anyone reading this has heard about the absurd decision of the Itawamba County school board to cancel the high school prom simply because a lesbian student (Constance McMillen) wanted to attend with her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo. The story has been picked up by the national media and is making the rounds on a number of blogs. Not surprisingly, news like this reinforces stereotypes about our state, some of which are very difficult to challenge in the first place.

In all the reporting I have seen so far, the bit that really caught my attention was a story by the Associated Press in which Southside Baptist Church Pastor Bobby Crenshaw was quoted. Pastor Crenshaw was complaining about how many of the sources covering this story are depicting the South as "backwards." In an apparent attempt to refute this impression, he responded, "but a lot more people here have biblically based values." (Sigh)

There is some good news coming out of this mess, but again, it does nothing to change the image of our state. First, the ACLU is working with Ms. McMillen to protect her rights. Second, two members of the American Humanist Association have donated $20,000 to help support a replacement prom. Third, it looks like this situation has sparked such outrage at a national level that all sorts of offers of help have been pouring in and political efforts are underway to enact greater protections of GLBT students.

If you are frustrated by this situation and want to do something to help, visit Mississippi Safe Schools.

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When I moved to Mississippi, one of the things I was most curious about was race relations. Never having lived in this part of the country before, I knew that I was basing my impressions largely on stereotypes and media distortions. I wanted to know the reality on the ground. What I found was that many of the stereotypes regarding race were inaccurate. However, I wasn't prepared for the kind of segregation - a different sort of segregation from what we usually mean - that I found.

It did not take me long to discover that Blacks usually associated with other Blacks and that White usually hung out with other Whites. This was not the surprise, as I have encountered this sort of grouping taking place everywhere I've lived. I've always found it unfortunate that there isn't more intermingling, but this seems to be the norm.

The surprise involves the sort of religious segregation I encountered. Members of the predominate religion in this area, Southern Baptist, tended to associate primarily with members of their own churches. It was as if they had a society within a society. Church was not just for Sundays; many families base their entire social lives around their church. Even if they only attended services every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening, nearly all their friends were members of their own church.

I also noticed similar patterns among some minority religions. Catholics did the same, albeit to a somewhat milder degree, as did Jews. This was something new for me, something different from what I have encountered in other regions.

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