A Call for Compromise: A Letter to Itawamba County Agricultural High School Leaders

March 12, 2010

Note: I sent this letter to the Itawamba County School Board members and Itawamba County Agricultural High School administrators not on CFI’s behalf, but my own.

Dear Itawamba County School Board members and Itawamba County Agricultural High School administrators,

Hello, this is Michael De Dora Jr., executive director at the thinktank Center for Inquiry in New York City. Please note that while my duties at CFI are important to note, I am writing this message on my own behalf, not as a representative of the organization. I hope it finds you well and that you consider it in its full breadth.

I am writing you because I am concerned about the situation at the Itawamba County Agricultural High School. In short, I have learned that the senior prom was canceled to avoid entering into a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) after the organization came to the support of Constance McMillen, an 18-year-old girl who was told by the school that she could not attend the prom with her girlfriend (though the ACLU has since filed the suit anyway).

Before going further, you might be wondering why someone from New York City cares about an issue so far away. What do I have to worry about? However, as an American citizen, I am interested in my fellow citizens’ natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and their equality — wherever they are. We live not only in our own bubbles of existence, but in a large nation of 300-plus million people, and a planet of even more. What happens in your neck of the woods, then, is of interest to me because in some sense that is my neck of the woods as well.

Given both the ban on homosexual couples attending the prom that led to the current situation, and your decision to cancel the prom rather than allow McMillen and her girlfriend to attend, it seems obvious the majority of the school board and school administration has a problem with homosexuality. I will not avoid the fact that I disagree with this position. I believe gays are equal to straights, just as blacks are equal to whites. I believe that gays are no less moral than any group of Americans generally. I believe homosexuality is not chosen, but given by nature (homosexuality is found widely in non-human animals). I believe that even if homosexuality is a choice in some way, there is nothing inherently wrong with it. I believe that a lifestyle is not mistaken merely because it is different than mine. I believe that one sentence in the Bible cannot make for American public policy (even Christians will admit the Bible contain some horrid passages; and there is, of course, Jesus’ teachings of love, not hate).

But while your position troubles me as a person of secular orientation — as a public voice for secular values — our apparent disagreement on homosexuality itself is not what I care to address. Rather, I think this issue sheds valuable light on how we can collectively disagree in the proper, American democratic manner, for how we debate is just as important as what we debate.

We live in a society in which we cannot completely cordon off others with whom we do not want to interact, with whom we disagree. We can avoid certain situations, surely, and hunker down in our own corners of the world. But any person interested in partaking in this pluralistic society cannot avoid that we live not just within our own families, or neighborhoods, but also in cities, and moreover, a country of people with varying backgrounds, preferences, and beliefs. In essence, people who are different from us — who disagree with us on many things — surround us. This is not a problem, per se. We should not expect, or even desire, that everyone live the same way. How boring would that be? And we should expect people to disagree with us. This is not necessarily a bad thing either; it is the price we pay for our freedom of conscience. In our democracy, you have every right to formulate, hold, and act on your beliefs as you will.

Fortunately, we are not left to our differences, helpless amid opposing convictions. America has a rich history of open and full public debate on important issues. If we disagree, we talk about it. We take it to the public square, where the beliefs of all — moral or otherwise — are debated over which are reasonable and which are not.

But while our disagreements with others and their ways of life might become so vehement that we turn to hatred, we should not wish that others’ minds be forced, that they be subjugated for their beliefs, and deemed lesser people. Consider the related issue of gay marriage. Few gay marriage advocates are attempting to outright force churches or religious people to open their arms wide to gay marriage. Instead, what most of these advocates want is equality as citizens in the eyes of the government and their neighbors. As the adage goes, respect the believer, not the belief. From there, let the debate ensue. So while you might believe it is wrong to deeply love others of the same sex, the way to solve the issue is not to deny basic rights and equality of those who do so. That would be effectively forsaking American ideals. We are, and should strive to be, better than that. Rather, we should debate those we disagree with while collectively granting and protecting their rights and equality as American citizens . For who knows which group will come into power next, desiring the limit the rights of others after theirs were limited in the past? The point is that certain rights, and equality, should be inalienable.

Ask yourself, then, the following questions: Is homosexuality so terribly wrong that you cannot treat gays as equal humans while debating the intrinsic worth of their sexual preference? Is homosexuality so wrong that not just two gay teens, but an entire school class should be punished for the very existence of gays among us? Your decision also seems an attempt to shelter children from the fact of homosexuality. If so, can you truly expect these children to be shielded from people who are different from them their entire lives? Would you even want this? If we do not interact with others, how can we learn about them and their worldviews, and attempt to make collective progress as a society? Lastly, what sort of standard does your action set for the young men and women who will soon join the public square — who will soon be debating, voting on, and perhaps even making our social and political policy?

The latest news on this matter is that the American Humanist Association — which advances a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity — has made available $20,000 to fund an inclusive prom . But one need not be a secular humanist to demand that all humans be treated equally, even if we disagree with what they believe, with how they desire to lead their lives. Indeed, many religious believers embrace gays as they embrace anyone else; as members of their moral circle.

In consideration of all I have written, I urge you to rethink your decision, reinstate the prom, and allow Constance McMillen to attend with her girlfriend alongside their straight classmates. I urge you to set an example to these students, and the citizenry at large, that while we might both battle over whether homosexuality should be welcomed or rejected, we should be able to have reasonable dialogue on the matter while securing the basic natural rights of gays. We cannot avoid others, and we cannot make them who we want them to be. But we can debate their views while treating them as equals. This is the American democratic way.

Sincerely,

Michael De Dora Jr.