Dyer County High School is a government-run school located in Newbern, Tennessee, a small town of 3,300 souls in northwestern Tennessee. Prior to a recent event, Newbern was best known as the site of a terrible tragedy that took the lives of sixteen people, who were killed by a tornado on April 2, 2006. In recent days, Kendra Turner, a high school senior at the high school, was suspended for breaking an important class rule. What was the serious infraction that merited her suspension? After a classmate sneezed, Ms. Turned said, “Bless you!” Please note that she did not say, “God bless you!” which might have earned the umbrage of strict separationists of church and state in the educational establishment. However, because she said “bless you,” Ms. Turner implicitly invoked the benediction of a Supreme Deity on her classmate, so that was close enough to actually saying “God” in a government-run school. Accordingly, such speech cannot be tolerated, even in small-town Tennessee. As a result, the unnamed teacher told Ms. Turner that such language should be confined to church. According to media reports, Ms. Turner said that the teacher then announced, “We’re not going to have godly speaking in her class!” (Would anti-godly speaking be permitted in class then?) When Ms. Turner affirmed her constitutional right to free speech, she was sent to a high school administrator. School administrators later told Ms. Turner’s parents that the “bless you” was a classroom distraction. However, the school administrator made no statement regarding whether the instigating sneezing student was a classroom distraction.
Media reports indicate that the high school teacher has demeaned other Christian students since the beginning of this academic year several weeks ago. In fact, Rev. Becky Winegardner, Ms. Turner’s youth pastor, spoke with a number of other high school students who complained to her about the same teacher and her prior remarks. Rev. Winegardner reminded the students of their constitutional rights. In response to Ms. Turner’s suspension, a number of other students wore shirts to school emblazoned with hand-stitched “bless you.” (Kudos to them!) Attempts by this writer to obtain a statement from school administrators or Ms. Turner’s teacher regarding Ms. Turner’s suspension were unsuccessful.
Just as the alleged conduct by Ms. Turner’s teacher, anti-Christian opponents regularly attempt to privatize religious expression confining such statements solely to church. Some extremists would not permit any religious sentiment or expression in the broader society, such in privately-owned places of business or even in political discourse. I urge that the local school board and superintendent of the Dyer County School District undertake an independent investigation to determine whether Ms. Turner’s teacher violated her constitutional rights. If they were, then disciplinary measures should be taken against Ms. Turner’s teacher. If you wish to telephone the high school to express your views, you can reach them at 731.627.2229. However, the high school was not answering the telephone yesterday. But it seems to me that if the teacher’s conduct against Ms. Turner can occur in small-town Tennessee, it can happen anywhere in the United States.