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As Long as We Remember...

July 13, 2006

A Growing Scandal of Religious Intolerance

Tony Soltero

"It can't happen here." That's what we always tell ourselves here in the land of the free, whenever we hear about some outrageous incident in another country, particularly one that involves the persecution of a designated group of people. We're America. We have our Constitution. We're the freest, the most welcoming, and the most tolerant country on the planet. That's what all our troops out there are fighting for.

But sometimes it does happen here, as a Jewish family in rural Delaware recently found out.

A couple of years ago, Samantha Dobrich, the lone Jewish student in the Indian River School District high school, attended her graduation ceremony with her classmates. What should have been a pleasant, memorable, life-enriching experience for her was ruined by a local pastor using the invocation to publicly single her out as "one specific student" who needed special attention from God, "in Jesus' name."

This gratuitous public mention was difficult enough, but it was just one of many incidents of harassment that the Dobrich children, as well as another unnamed non-Christian family, were forced to endure at Indian River.

According to the families, school officials openly promoted fundamentalist Christianity, to the point of conferring special privileges to students who attended designated Bible study groups - such as express access to lunch.

Teachers openly discussed Christianity with no mention of other religions. Non-Christian students were pressured into attending district board meetings, where they were subjected to officially-sanctioned sectarian public prayer. One particular teacher plugged Christianity as the "one true religion" and handed out proselytizing pamphlets to the students.

Mind you, this was at a public, taxpayer-supported high school; a high school that belonged to the Dobriches every bit as much as it did to the other families in the district.

Bothered by this blatant lack of respect for their faith, the Dobriches filed a complaint with the local school board, which tried to ignore them at first, but eventually granted them a hearing.

The Dobriches presented a mild, reasonable request - that organized prayers be held in God's name, rather than in Jesus' name, out of consideration for non-Christian families.

The school board not only refused to compromise (ignoring that all officially sanctioned school prayer is unconstitutional), but publicly mocked the Dobriches by loudly breaking into Christian prayers on the spot. The school board decided to formulate a religion policy.

Local talk radio got into the act, as did national theocratic organizations like the Rutherford Institute. Fanned by the radio hosts, a mob scene formed at the meeting where the new policy was to be unveiled.

The Dobriches' son Alex, then in the sixth grade, rose up to make a simple statement - "I feel bad when kids in class call me Jewboy" - but the local vultures hooted at him, with one attendee screaming at the young boy to "take your yarmulke off."

Local politicians rose and further blasted away at the Dobriches, with one former school board member even hinting that they might "disappear." References to the Ku Klux Klan began to emerge in the threats.

The talk-radio crowd got louder, shriller, and bolder. Young Alex was routinely called a "Christ-killer" and began hiding his yarmulke for fear of his personal safety. The family began facing more and more threats.

A well-trafficked right-wing website published the Dobriches' names, home address, and telephone number, instigating even more smothering harassment of the Jewish family.

The Dobriches purchased a second home in Wilmington to protect their children, but eventually the financial drain forced the family to sell the Indian River home. Samantha dropped out of college and lapsed into depression. The Dobriches (along with the other family) filed their complaint describing the above incidents and others. The lawsuit is pending.

Nice work, Delaware fundamentalists! Pogrom accomplished! Maybe certain Taliban officials will be sending a congratulatory video, live from the cave!

These kinds of things happened not long ago in another "civilized" Western country, which I will be kind enough not to mention by name. They're par for the course in Muslim dictatorships like Iran and Saudi Arabia. But they're not supposed to happen here. Except when they do. And they're escalating nationwide, abetted by local (and sometimes state and national) governments turning a blind eye to, if not outright encouraging, these persecutions.

How has so much of America degenerated to this level, promoting this kind of hatred, harassment and exclusion in the name of "Christianity?" How insecure must a fundamentalist Christian be in his faith that he feels he must persecute those who don't worship the same way he does? Why can't some fundamentalists function without explicit government validation of their beliefs?

The alleged actions of the Indian River school board, as well as those of the harassers, constitute a profound betrayal of American ideals as envisioned by our Founding Fathers.

Given that this country was partly settled by religious people escaping persecution for their faith, and mindful of the disastrous consequences that the commingling of church and state had generated in Europe, the framers of the Constitution stated in the very first clause of the very first amendment (among the Bill of Rights), "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The Dobriches' rights were grotesquely violated on both counts.

America's original settlers could draw two possible lessons from their ordeals back in the old country. The first lesson is that religious persecution is bad, and that one should not engage in it; that is the lesson the Founding Fathers applied to our Constitution.

The alternative lesson is that it's better to be the oppressor than the oppressed; as demonstrated by the reprehensible behavior of the so-called "Christians" in Indian River, there are some factions in America that seem to have adopted that model.

It is up to the rest of us Americans, those of us who respect the Constitution, to put a stop to these loathsome practices. Because if we don't, it will happen here.

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