In a roundabout way, it was a Ten Commandments display at a public high school that led me to Americans United.
I was a journalist in 2012 when I began reporting on a legal challenge involving a huge Ten Commandments monument in front of a public high school outside Pittsburgh. Local families, assisted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, had filed lawsuits after that school district and another in the region refused to remove the displays.
Although I’d grown up in the area and had been to this high school countless times for work, I typically used doors around the side of the building and had never seen the display up close. I had assumed the taller-than-me stone monument in front of the building was inscribed with the name of the school, or perhaps a dedication to students or school leaders. I was stunned and disappointed to learn the district had been displaying the Ten Commandments between the school gym and student parking lot for more than half a century.
I was equally disappointed, but not terribly surprised, by the community’s reaction to the lawsuit. Insults and threats were lobbed at the mom who was the lead plaintiff. Rallies and prayer vigils were held, and a Facebook group was created in support of the monument. School officials made what seemed to be conflicting arguments for keeping the display – hardly anyone even knew it was there, but also it was an important historical touchstone for the community. There was little compassion for children who might feel ostracized by a monument declaring a particular religious view.
This was essentially my community. I had grown up nearby and attended the neighboring public school district. From what I can recall, I think my small district generally did a decent job respecting the separation of church and state. I don’t remember any prayers or Bible reading in school, and I didn’t learn until I was an adult that some people didn’t believe in evolution.
And yet, from the classroom Christmas parties and Christmas carols, to Easter holiday breaks, to my school bus that also stopped at a local Catholic private school, there was a presumption that everyone was Christian. It was anxiety-inducing when I realized in high school that I didn’t believe in God – it felt like something I should hide to avoid being singled out. My school didn’t have a Ten Commandments display (that I know of), but that probably was less because of respect for students’ religious freedom and more because the school hadn’t been built yet in the 1950s when Eagles clubs were donating thousands of monuments to schools and communities across the nation.
The phrase “Christian nationalism” wasn’t in my vocabulary then, but I felt it nonetheless – the impression I was somehow less patriotic, less American because I wasn’t Christian like I assumed everyone else was. It felt like such a daring thing to my 16-year-old self when I stopped saying the words “under God” when we recited the Pledge of Allegiance (I certainly wasn’t brave enough to stop saying the Pledge altogether, as was within my rights, unbeknownst to me).
That’s why, 15 or so years later, I thought it was very brave for the mom, Marie Schaub, to speak up and challenge that Ten Commandments display. By trying to make her daughter’s high school more welcoming and inclusive for all students, she was challenging the perhaps subconscious – but very real – Christian nationalist mindset of the community. And they let her know they didn’t appreciate her efforts.
Although Americans United didn’t represent Marie, AU was one of the organizations that filed a legal brief supporting her case. As I reported on the litigation, I learned about AU, and its vision really resonated with me – that the separation of church and state is what protects the rights of everyone to believe, or not, as we choose. There can be no religious freedom, no equality, without it. And so, it felt like it was meant to be a few years later when I saw a job posting for AU just as I was looking to leave journalism and move to advocacy communications.
I’m proud of the work AU does – including the “Know Your Rights” guides we just released. My teenage self would have benefitted from knowing what my rights were, and the assurance that not everyone has the same beliefs about religion. And not only is that OK, but it’s inherently, fundamentally American.
My only regret is that I didn’t get to report on Marie’s victory in the case. Just a few months after I left the newspaper, the district agreed to donate the monument to a private Catholic school in the community. It was such an obvious solution that benefited everyone. I just wish it had been reached five years – or five decades – sooner.