God: The Teacher’s Aide

Author Emily Dietle

My focus is on state-church separation & social issues. I'm an avid reader, and feel that one of our most valuable tools is the free movement of information and ideas. | @emilyhasbooks

When Sara Sheppard showed up to summer school, the last thing she expected was to become a player in the fight for church-state separation. It wasn’t long into the economics course that Sara’s teacher began lecturing the class on religion.

As the semester went by I realized that his passion for passing on his knowledge was not focused on economics but focused on religion, prayer, and spirituality. Instead of teaching economics he would teach us that certain historical people were among the greatest because of their spiritual enlightenment. He also expressed to the students that it was human nature to have a spiritual and religious component, therefore making atheists unnatural and against human nature. This teacher went so far with this idea to even compare atheism to smoking and how the body originally rejects smoking just like “the mind rejects the concept of atheism.”

Uncomfortable with this, Sara felt like she was the only one of her peers who disapproved, and confronting the teacher in class did nothing to change the situation. Reaching out to local non-believers, Sara found that her instincts about the legality of the teacher’s alternative lessons were correct, they violated the law. With the help of legal counseling from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), Sara recorded the religious rants on her mobile. Presenting this evidence to school authorities with warning of legal action, FFRF was able to motivate the school to address the teacher. Writing about her experience, Ms.Sheppard won 4th place in FFRF’s annual scholarship essay contest in September, and the teacher is now focused on teaching economics, not proselytizing.

Sara attends the weekly humanist gathering, Houston Oasis, and recently I was able to catch up with her and ask a few questions about her experience, in the hopes that her story will help inspire others to action. Whether you need the motivation to stand up for state-church separation, or finally purchase an FFRF membership, I hope you enjoy the following interview with Sara Sheppard.

I had a few friends in the same class that were angry with me and said I destroyed his freedom to religion, but in reality his actions were unconstitutional and were not related to economics at all. This was economics class, not Sunday school. From this event I learned that even though I grew up with a shy personality I can still have a passionate and assertive voice that fights for what is constitutional.

Sara Sheppard

Are you aware of any further attempts by this teacher to promote his religious preferences in the classroom? I asked a few friends about him while I was taking the class and they knew he had a “different” personality to him. But nothing about him promoting his religion. Not sure if he has lately but I would assume that he now watches what he says in a public school classroom. Since my summer school was only a few weeks I feel like he thought he had a better chance of getting away with what he wanted to say.

In the FFRF essay, you wrote that the mention of the word atheism in the classroom was your breaking point. What was it about it that sparked you to speak up? Hearing the word atheism made it feel very personal. Before this moment, he would mention people who were non-religious, but actually hearing atheist really did spark me to speak up. It’s sort of like hearing your name. Someone may describe me as a girl with brown hair and a red dress but when I hear my actual name Sara it feels more personal. That’s how it felt when I heard atheism instead of “non-religious people.”

Were you aware of the laws concerning state-church separation prior to this experience? I knew a little bit. At first I questioned if what the teacher was saying was even allowed. I was unsure myself and that is why I went to the online community who told me he was straight out wrong. I always took interest in state-church separation and loved writing about it in English and speak class.

There are students in schools across the nation with proselytizing teachers breaking sectarian boundaries, unaware of their options. Do you have advice to those that may find themselves in similar situations? Never feel alone! I know I felt very alone when I reported the situation to Freedom From Religion Foundation. I felt like everyone around me in the class was okay with what the teacher was saying – and maybe they were since no one ever approached me to tell me they agreed with me when I would stick up for atheism. At one point I started to regret what I had done and started questioning if I was being too extreme. As it simmered down I realized that I was not too extreme and that in reality the teacher was too extreme.

Is there anything you want to say about this experience that you feel hasn’t been stressed enough? The teacher was a really great guy besides his preaching in class. He did teach us some life lessons and inspired me to try my hardest in school, go to college, and have a stable income. He also taught me that it was a smart idea to go to community college. I was conflicted over the idea of University or community college. I felt like community college was an “easy way out” and was a college people who could not get accepted into a University. In high school people are all hyped up about Universities so you never hear the pros of community college. He taught us that community college was actually a smart decision that saves a lot of money! Now I’m at community college and I love it. The teacher was also pro-choice, so that was pretty interesting.

In class, was it obvious where the teacher was going with his topics? What was involved in preparing to make the recording, and did you struggle with the idea of releasing the evidence? It started to become obvious when it was the same pattern. Topic of economics that led to a life lesson that led to preaching. The life lessons were wonderful, but they would instantly become religious. I just downloaded an app for recording on my phone and hid my phone in my purse on my desk. It was difficult at first to come to the decision to record him because I was worried about what it might lead to. I was a bit scared about recording him and doing something about the situation. So yes, I did struggle with the idea of releasing the recordings to Freedom From Religion Foundation.

For those friends who were angry with you about addressing the teacher’s inappropriate remarks, have you lost those friendships or have they mended? My one friend who was really angry debated the topic with me for a while I tried my hardest to explain why it was illegal. We dropped the conversation and still talk when we run into each other. (She was more of a friend when I was younger anyways) She even invited me to a debate that will feature Dan Barker from the Freedom From Religion Foundation so I believe she got over it and accepts our different views.

It’s apparent that you were alienated during this; did anyone side with you publicly or did you have any secret supporters? Did anyone support of your choice to speak out, but still disagree about the issue? During the event I had no support from other students – could have had secret supporters but like I said earlier no one approached me to say they were on my side in the classroom. A year later when this event gained attention I found out I had a lot of supporters, even religious people from online and from my school. I received one message from a high school classmate who is known to be really religious,”I just saw your speech and just wanted to say that even though we have different beliefs, I am proud of you for standing up for what you believe because it takes true courage!”

If you were being interviewed on the Colbert Report, I’m sure you would be asked something clever about your surname. Has anyone teased you or commented on the coincidence? Yes, a few times people have called me a Shepherd. Haha!

With so many students having quick access to recording equipment, do you think this opens a door to keep teachers accountable, or could it hurt those who go off-topic in an attempt to help students, by discussing sex, drugs and other controversial subjects? I believe it helps a lot to keep teachers in line – mainly in the Bible belt. Discussing sex, drugs, and other controversial subjects are different than preaching in a classroom. One is illegal. I can see a teacher getting in trouble for speaking about controversial topics, but I still think the recording ability has more pros than cons when it comes to keeping teachers in line.

From standing up in class, to receiving a response from the superintendent, how long was the process with FFRF, and was it an intensive process for you? I waited until the last week of summer school to report it – I did not want the teacher to hold a grudge against me if he knew it was me. Once FFRF sent a fax out [to the school], they got a super quick reply within 24 hours saying they had taken appropriate action. By that time class was over, so I was not put in an awkward situation in the classroom.

Has this experience inspired you to engage in further state-church separation work? Yes! Lately I have been keeping an eye on the text book issues and plan on continuing to be a strong force of the separation of church and state. I never thought this issue would happen in my own classroom. The problem is that a lot of people do not want to speak up, so the problem goes on and on. We need more students to stick up for the separation of church and state.