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.

Comments:

#1 Simple Schoolboy (Guest) on Friday March 12, 2010 at 10:21pm

Isn’t that “Dr.” De Dora?

#2 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Sunday March 14, 2010 at 12:18am

Good essay.

Let us know if there’s any response to this?

#3 Michael De Dora on Sunday March 14, 2010 at 12:28pm

Daniel,

No response yet, but I’ll be sure to update if there is one.

#4 Dennis (Guest) on Monday March 15, 2010 at 5:34pm

Mr. De Dora Jr.,

It appears you work for an organization CFI that does NOT believe in compromise!
If YOU did believe in compromise, YOU would not be working for CFI and trying to force secularity/YOUR religion on others!

The school district board members in MS. held a Democratic vote to cancel this prom.
This means the board members chosen to represent the parents/taxpayers decided it would be discrimination to allow a female student to wear a man’s tuxedo because it would violate the school district’s dress code!
Compromise in the USA is determined through Democracy, not corrupt lawyers and Judges that can be bought as easily as you can be bought.
This minimizes violence towards certain groups!

Government schools and senior proms are NOT funded to be a stage for a person’s sexual orientation.

I do not know how you can justify that YOUR religion is better than other religions?

Please set a better example for children by keeping your religious beliefs to yourself there in NYC and show some intelligent tolerance for those with different views.

Sincerely,

Dennis

#5 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Monday March 15, 2010 at 6:04pm

@Dennis

1) Secularism is not religion by any combination of meaningful definitions for either word.

2) The version of what you have called ‘democracy’ doesn’t fly for at least two reasons:

2a) Democracy is a form of government, and a school board isn’t the government.

2b) It is in keeping with the spirit of democracy that every member of society has equal rights. It follows from this that it is also in keeping with the spirit of democracy to protect the rights of individuals who are members of minority groups. To phrase it differently, using democracy itself as an excuse to justify the many in violating the rights of the few is contrary to the spirit of democracy.

3) Democracy is a form of decision making. It is not a form of compromise. Compromise is accomplished in modern societies through discussion and negotiation.

4) Furthermore, the decision of the school board cannot be considered a form of compromise anyway because Constance McMillen does not have a vote of her own on the school board. She has no voice in that decision making process.

5) The phrase ‘this minimizes violence’ seems out of place in your post. I’m choosing to interpret that this wasn’t intended as a veiled threat. Your clarification of and/or retraction of that comment is nonetheless called for. A less generous reading could interpret that statement as a veiled promise of violence against homosexuals, secularists, and/or Michael De Dora if you don’t get your way.

6) Is it the case that a heterosexual student attending a school ball with a member of the opposite sex is staging their sexual orientation? This is no different to a homosexual student attending a school ball with a member of the same sex. The same rules should apply - to do otherwise is discriminatory against homosexuals on grounds of sexual orientation.

7) There is no need to keep your religious beliefs to yourself - in fact, I invite your contribution in the public sphere. Admittedly, I would prefer that you adopted a tone that indicates some level of self-awareness to the irony in your position… but that is hardly a prerequisite.

#6 asanta on Monday March 15, 2010 at 10:03pm

Michael, great letter, and Daniel, very reasoned explanation to Mr. IntoleRant.

#7 Dennis (Guest) on Tuesday March 16, 2010 at 8:54am

@ Daniel

Can you explain why you want a school district to enforce their dress code based on sexual orientation?

Discrimination is the actual behavior towards another group. It involves excluding or restricting members of one group from opportunities that are available to other groups.

The term “religion” refers both to the personal practices related to communal faith and to group rituals and communication stemming from a shared conviction.

#8 Dennis (Guest) on Tuesday March 16, 2010 at 9:16am

@asanta

Discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal or it was a few days ago!

Has something changed over the weekend?

#9 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Tuesday March 16, 2010 at 2:56pm

@Dennis

I notice you haven’t responded to most of my points. Specifically, points 2 through to 5, and point 7. You’ve neither conceded them as valid rebuttals to your original claims, nor have you engaged with them to indicate why they are not.

Instead, you’ve ignored them - presumably, you are either because you are unable or unwilling to address them.

More disturbingly, you haven’t clarified or retracted your use of the phrase ‘This minimizes violence towards certain groups!’

I stand by my earlier point 5) - your use of this phrase demands clarification or retraction.

Can you explain why you want a school district to enforce their dress code based on sexual orientation?

I don’t, and didn’t make that claim.

My claim is that if the treatment of homosexual students is unequal to that of heterosexual students, then this is discriminatory against homosexual students on grounds of sexual orientation.

The implied premise in this claim is that discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is a bad thing and should be condemned and discouraged as such.

If anything, this is the opposite to wanting a school district to enforce dress code based on sexual orientation. My whole point is that sexual orientation shouldn’t be an influencing factor any more than the color of someone’s eyes, hair, or skin shouldn’t be an influencing factor.

The term “religion” refers both to the personal practices related to communal faith and to group rituals and communication stemming from a shared conviction.

This is a VERY vague definition of religion. However, it does not apply to secularism.

Secularism does not prescribe a list of personal practices. To the contrary. Secularism is inclusive of any personal practices or none. That’s the point.

Neither does secularism prescribe any form of ritual. It is inclusive of all rituals as well as no rituals at all.

Secularism does consist of a conviction, in the sense that ‘conviction’ can be interpreted to mean ‘a state of having been convinced of something’. Secularists - both religious and nonreligious secularists, I might add - are convinced that government should not interfere with religion, and that religion should not interfere with government.

Even by your own submitted definition of ‘religion’ -which is highly fuzzy and could apply to almost anything - secularism still fails to qualify.

#10 Dennis (Guest) on Tuesday March 16, 2010 at 4:03pm

@ Daniel

I did not address all of your points because they have nothing to do with this case in MS.

The school district board members that were appointed to represent McMillen voted to cancel the prom to PREVENT discrimination against her classmates that were being forced to comply with the dress code.

The ACLU lawsuit seeks a court order for the school to hold the prom. It also asks that McMillen be allowed to wear a tuxedo, which the school said violated policy.

Government imposed secularity (Court ordered, written law) violates the rights of those that do not believe in the religion of secularity. This also violates the first amendment!

Do you think the US Govt. should have the ability to prevent the Islamic nation of United Arab Emirates sending two Heterosexuals to jail for kissing in public?

#11 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Tuesday March 16, 2010 at 4:36pm

@Dennis

It is becoming clear that you are not open to discussion, Dennis. You seem only interested in rehearsing your predetermined conclusion. It seems I may as well be talking to a brick wall.

In closing:

Every one of my points 1-7 addresses comments made in your original posting. You clearly felt at the time of that posting that those comments had something to do with the issue at hand, but now that I’ve called you out on them you’ve decided to forget about them.

I am forced to conclude that you have shifted the goalposts in this way because you are unable to support your original position against even the most cursory criticism.

Additionally, your claim that “The school district board members that were appointed to represent McMillen voted to cancel the prom to PREVENT discrimination against her classmates that were being forced to comply with the dress code…” makes absolutely no sense.

The dress code stated that Constance could not wear a tuxedo, nor could she bring along a date that was the member of the opposite sex. Permitting Constance to do either of these things would not have meant forcing this behavior on her classmates. Her classmates could still wear what they wanted, and bring who they wanted. The only person in this situation that has been discriminated against is Constance.

Your assertion to the contrary is just too warped for consideration. I urge you to take a reality check of the situation.

Secularism does not violate religious rights. It enshrines and protects the rights of individuals to practice any religion or none at all. It does prevent religious individuals from forcing their values and standards of behavior on members of other religion or on members of no religion, because those individuals are equally protected under secularism. But other than this, religious rights not only remian perfectly intact, but are actually enshrined and protected under secularism.

Finally, by your own definition of religion, secularism is not a religion.

I doubt you have anything left to offer me, Dennis. You seem incapable of engaging me or my points in this discussion.

And it seems that all I have to offer you is further undeserved attention, a platform on which to plug your ears and repeat your predetermined conclusion ad naueseam, and the persisted illusion that your opinion deserves to be taken seriously. I’m no longer inclined to give you these things.

I invite you to take the last word, if you’ll have it.

#12 stacey_montoya (Guest) on Tuesday March 16, 2010 at 9:08pm

Hello Michael De Dora Jr.,
I have just heard this disturbing news about Constance McMillen and her situation. And I must say kudos to you for writting that letter. I in fact was going to do the same, and was wondering if you would please give me the address of the school for I can’t seem to find it.
Thank you.

#13 asanta on Tuesday March 16, 2010 at 10:45pm

Girls have been able to wear pants to school since I was in high school. I don’t recall any ‘dress’ code for proms except that you come in formal wear, something many rebellious teens ignore. Their transgression is usually ignored at the prom. Last I checked, a tuxedo qualifies as formal wear.

#14 Dennis (Guest) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 at 2:04pm

I had the opportunity to read the lawsuit filed by the ACLU. The ACLU is suing under the first amendment, free speech!
The ACLU argues that McMillen should be allowed to violate the school dress code concerning the prom because McMillen should be allowed to display her sexual orientation!
The school dress code states that “Girls” MUST wear dresses! There are no exceptions for Lesbians included in the dress code.
Clearly, McMillen is asking for an exception to the rule based on her sexual orientation. All of the other students must follow this dress code! This is discrimination based on sexual orientation!
Discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal in the USA and the school district should be forced to apply the rules equally to everyone!

Your comment: Additionally, your claim that “The school district board members that were appointed to represent McMillen voted to cancel the prom to PREVENT discrimination against her classmates that were being forced to comply with the dress code…” makes absolutely no sense.

It’s no surprise that this does not make sense to some people. There are people that think they should not follow rules and/or think rules should only apply to other people. This is the reason for rules!

Solution:
A private prom.
The dress code and other rules can be determined by a Democratic vote. The participating members will cast votes. All of the rules apply to everyone equally.
This could eliminate Government imposed discrimination!

McMillen has the freedom to wear her Tuxedo and escort her date to dinner at a restaurant, no one is stopping her from expressing her sexual orientation in public!
Naturally, a restaurant owner “should” have the freedom to prevent her from doing so.
This is freedom!

I just read another case concerning two Heterosexuals that were sentenced to jail for kissing in public at a restaurant!
IMO, they violated the law and they should be sent to jail!

#15 batty007 (Guest) on Thursday March 18, 2010 at 5:58am

Am I to believe that the reason she is being excluded from the prom is that she wants to wear a tuxedo? If both of the girls wore dresses would they be allowed to attend? This is just ludicrous. They have a problem with homosexuality, and they transfer their attitudes to their children. Kids today are way more accepting of homosexuality than they were in the 70’s. Let the kids go to their prom in whatever outfits they choose, and with whomever they want to share the memories with. It’s really none of the school board’s business. And the straight kids will really enjoy a ,000 prom. I doubt their classmates’ sexuality will even be an issue with them.

#16 Dennis (Guest) on Thursday March 18, 2010 at 9:24am

@ batty007

Yes, the school district board members that represent the taxpayers/parents do have a problem with the dress code being violated in efforts to display sexual orientation!

I would have preferred all of the cute girls at my senior prom not wear any clothes BUT that would have violated the dress code. You know, I wanted to display my sexual orientation!

I could have sued the school district but then, that could have ruined the prom for all of my classmates!
I did not feel it was appropriate for me to take such selfish measures simply to display my sexual orientation!
I like to think my decision was a display of respect for the rule of law and my classmates!

#17 Dennis (Guest) on Thursday March 18, 2010 at 10:54am

@ Daniel

I do not understand your hostility?

McMillen was allowed to attend the prom.
McMillen was allowed to bring her Lesbian date to the prom.

McMillen was NOT allowed to violate the dress code that all others were required to follow! That’s equality!

McMillen was NOT allowed to offend her classmates, just as her classmates were not allowed to offend her nor her date. That’s equality!

What rights were violated?

#18 asanta on Thursday March 18, 2010 at 8:44pm

I just wonder if that ‘dress code’ was shoved into place just for her…..

#19 batty007 (Guest) on Thursday March 18, 2010 at 9:18pm

The dress code is just an excuse. I’ll bet if they both wore formal gowns they would be just as unwelcome. Doesn’t hatred look stupid?

#20 Dennis (Guest) on Friday March 19, 2010 at 6:44am

@ asanta

I just wonder if that ‘dress code’ was shoved into place just for her…..

There is always a dress code, it’s to keep people from being offended!
The dress code must be followed by everyone!
Why do you think rules should ONLY apply to Heterosexuals?
This would be discrimination based on sexual orientation, IT’S ILLEGAL!

#21 Dennis (Guest) on Friday March 19, 2010 at 6:51am

@ batty007

The dress code is just an excuse. I’ll bet if they both wore formal gowns they would be just as unwelcome. Doesn’t hatred look stupid?

The dress code is just a rule, that’s why it is a code!

If these girls offended their classmates they would be removed from the prom by security!
The same holds true for any Heterosexual.
I would not be surprised if a few Heterosexuals were removed from the prom!

This is equality!

#22 asanta on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 9:19pm

Dennis you are being obtuse. I am asking if the ‘no pants’ rule was put into place just for this occasion. I am not denying that there is a dress code. I listened to an interview with Constance where the principal told her that they could both attend the ball (in dresses) as long as they did not: attend together, dance together (girls ALWAYS dance together at proms, it’s too hard to get the boys to dance), kiss or show affection, act in any way like they were dates.

#23 Dennis (Guest) on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 12:18pm

@ astanta

I am asking if the ‘no pants’ rule was put into place just for this occasion. I am not denying that there is a dress code. I listened to an interview with Constance where the principal told her that they could both attend the ball (in dresses) as long as they did not: attend together.

In regards to their decision, the school district stated “taking into consideration the education, safety and well-being of our students.”

Hypothetical situation:
The Lesbians attended the prom, their classmates assaulted these girls because they were offended by their sexual orientation.

The school district would be sued for not taking the proper measures to protect their students. In efforts to protect these two innocent girls, the prom was canceled!
Now, the school district is being sued by the ACLU for canceling the prom.
Will the ACLU assume the responsibility of protecting these two girls? NO!

I can see the school district had only one choice and that was to cancel the prom!

You can attempt to read the minds of the school district board members but you will never be held accountable for protecting these girls, like they are!

Sadly, in an attempt to prevent this “Legal” quagmire in the future, proms need to be private and some students will be excluded!

#24 asanta on Monday March 22, 2010 at 4:16pm

Dennis, it would hurt NO ONE to allow those two girls to attend the prom. Substitute lesbian (notice, I did not capitalize the ‘l’), for black or Asian, and refuse their ability to attend on the chance that it may offend the others. The premise is ridiculous.Both of these girls attend the same school. The fact that they are girl-friends must have been obviously apparent the the rest of the school. I did not hear of threats leveled toward the two at the school. The school board and principal is manufacturing excuses based on their ‘sensibilities’ not reality. They need to just get over it…

#25 Dennis (Guest) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 12:11pm

@ asanta

I will agree with your assumption and you make a good point!
Most people may have known these girls were lesbians, yet it does not make a difference because the prom was canceled for everyone!

I’m thinking, “Why did these girls feel the need to get an exception (The rules that everyone must follow) to display their sexual orientation?”

No one can be forced to accept Homosexuality because humans are born with an innate trait to be either Heterosexual, Bisexual or Homosexual, this conflict will always exist, nothing can make it go away.

Therefore, I must ask “Are these girls trying to make money from this fiasco?”
“Are the school district board members getting a kickback from the lawyers?”
“Are the school district board members just trying to protect these girls?”
Jurors can not read minds nor can a Judge!

Not everyone can be pleased by any rule, it’s impossible and it can be exploited by lawyers for monetary gain.

These type of lawsuits should never be allowed in a court room. The court system is bankrupt, school districts are bankrupt and America is bankrupt!
This is why rules are in place, in effort to eliminate these potential problems.

Anyone involved in a decision that does NOT apply these rules equally to everyone should be severely punished for discrimination!

Think about this “What if no one could make a monetary gain from this lawsuit?”

Would there be a lawsuit?

#26 asanta on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 10:24pm

No, the girls are NOT trying to make money, and the only thing that makes it a fiasco is the attitude of the school administration. THEIR first amendment rights have been violated. At this point I hope they DO sue and win a LARGE settlement. THAT may be what it takes to change the mind set of that board. I am out of this argument. I find your views odiously distasteful.

#27 Daniel Schealler on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 11:43pm

@asanta

Just so long as you’re enjoying yourself, it’s all good - but just in case, I thought I should point out that Dennis is trolling.

#28 asanta on Wednesday March 24, 2010 at 3:47am

Daniel, I have left the building !

#29 Dennis (Guest) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 at 9:32am

No, the girls are NOT trying to make money, and the only thing that makes it a fiasco is the attitude of the school administration. THEIR first amendment rights have been violated. At this point I hope they DO sue and win a LARGE settlement. THAT may be what it takes to change the mind set of that board. I am out of this argument. I find your views odiously distasteful.

I have given this a second thought and you are right!

These parents should not have the right to raise their children in the environment they choose through a Democratic process.
Clearly, these parents in Mississippi are not capable of creating the proper environment for their child!

This is why a Judge should control this environment, it will keep these parents from making these mistakes.
In fact, these parents should be punished for their mistake!
Let’s make them pay Million$. That will teach them to raise their children according to a Judge’s beliefs.
If these parents do not follow the Judge’s beliefs, they will be forced to pay more money!

It’s amazing, there are so many parents that need to have a Judge tell them how to properly raise their children!

#30 Basement Waterproofing (Guest) on Wednesday March 31, 2010 at 3:41am

Basement Waterproofing
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.

#31 batty007 (Guest) on Saturday April 03, 2010 at 7:56am

So it’s OK to display your sexual orientation at a prom only if you happen to be heterosexual? If the girls can’t dance together, kiss, etc, and the straight couples can that’s discrimination. If one of those girls was my daughter, little sister, or niece, I would be attending the prom to ensure that no classmates would attack them (I seriously doubt that would happen anyway) so your argument of “protecting” the girls falls short of reason.

#32 June Hollister (Guest) on Wednesday April 07, 2010 at 4:22pm

Dennis: as the school newspaper noted, last year 2 girls wore tuxedos to the prom. But they were straight, or at least had male dates, and so there was no reprisal or condemnation.

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