Don’t Bless This Mess: Religious Right Claim Of Persecution In Tenn. Public School Doesn’t Check Out

The Religious Right loves to play the victim, and these groups jump on any opportunity to make it seem like fundamentalist Christians are being oppressed.

As usual, the Religious Right’s outrage over a so-called “attack” on faith in a public school isn’t quite what it seems.

The media is swarming this week around a story told by Kendra Turner, a senior at Dyer County High School in Newbern, Tenn. She first broadcast the story on social media, claiming that she was “sent to the office” because one of her teachers didn’t want her saying “God bless you” in class after another student sneezed. In a Facebook post, Turner said her teacher told her, “We do not do Godly speak in my class.”

In later media interviews, Turner expanded quite a bit on her story. She said she argued with the teacher, who has been identified by her last name of Kindle. Supposedly, Kindle told Turner that she has no constitutional right to discuss God in her classroom. Turner said she was then dismissed from the class, sent to the principal’s office and given an in-school suspension for the remainder of that class period. She said after she left the room, all of her classmates stood up to defend her and that other teachers had to be called in to put down a mini-rebellion of sorts.

Turner told WMC Action News 5, the NBC affiliate in Memphis, that she was punished because she stood up for her own free speech.

“It’s all right to defend God and it’s our constitutional right because we have a freedom of religion and freedom of speech,” she told the news station.

Students also sent WMC Action News a photo of  what was said to be the teacher’s white board, which has a list of banned phrases – including “bless you.”

The Religious Right launched quickly into its usual hyperbolic, reactionary response, jumping to the conclusion that Turner’s version of the story must be the whole truth. Fox News columnist Todd Starnes, who has a history of running with these one-sided Religious Right scare stories, wrote that, “For whatever reason, the school will not explain why the teacher has an issue with the words ‘bless you.’ This one is a head-scratcher, folks. But one thing is clear – religious intolerance is nothing to sneeze at.”

In reality, the school has at least partly shared its side of the story. Hemant Mehta, who runs the “Friendly Atheist” blog, decided to dig a little bit. He spoke with Dyer County High School Principal Peggy Dodds, who told him Turner was not suspended for saying “bless you” and she has not been subjected to any type of in-school punishment. In fact, Turner wasn’t even told to leave the class – she walked out on her own.

Turner was, however, told not to disrupt class before she left, Dodds said. If she cried out “Bless you” after a fellow student sneezed, Kindle might have interpreted that as a disruption, just as she would have had Turned yelled out “Gesundheit,” Hey!” or anything else.

The WMC Action News report added that Kindle said Turner was both disruptive and aggressive.

So there you have it. While portions of the story remain unverified, it seems the news reports claiming Turner was kicked out of class and suspended are not accurate.

Now, it is worth noting that Kindle may have opened herself up to criticism with a posted list of banned words. Perhaps she was listing words that students commonly yell out in class. But rather than picking and choosing what students can or can’t say, she should simply have a policy that prohibits disruptive outbursts of any kind in class. That way no one can claim discrimination. (By the way, whatever happened to raising your hand if you have something to say in class?)

Unbiased media outlets really need to take note of Mehta’s work. Rather than running with a report based mostly off of a kid’s social media post, they have an obligation to get both sides of the story. In this case, many news outlets were far too easily satisfied when the school either declined to comment or didn’t immediately respond.

Ultimately it’s not hard to figure out why these types of phony or exaggerated horror stories keep circulating. The Religious Right loves to play the victim, and these groups jump on any opportunity to make it seem like fundamentalist Christians are being oppressed.

Of course this false “victimization” is just a cover for the fact that most of the time it’s the Religious Right that is discriminating against others – not the other way around.