Did a high school really suspend a student for saying “bless you” when someone sneezed? And if not, what really happened? As school resumed this month, a story emerged about Kendra Turner of Dyer County, Tennessee, who was allegedly chastised by her teacher for saying, “Bless you.” (“Bless you” appeared on a list of words that were considered distracting or inappropriate for use in the classroom, alongside words like “boring” and “hang out.”)
According to Turner, she was told that “Godly language” would not be tolerated in school and that her Constitutional rights didn’t apply in the classroom. When another student stepped in and told the teacher she couldn’t “trump God,” Turner was suspended for the rest of the period. Now lawyers from the conservative Christian Liberty Institute are demanding a public apology from the school.
Despite having taught in public high schools and witnessing incidents where teachers violated the free exercise rights of their students, I found the story of Turner’s suspension difficult to believe.
Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta shared this suspicion and spoke with Peggy Dodds, the school principal, who reported that Turner was never suspended but rather chose to walk out of the classroom. FERPA requirements prevent school officials from releasing information about the incident, however, Mehta suggests this was essentially a misunderstanding rather than a teacher persecuting Christians for their faith.
But I suspect there’s more going on here. This scene of a Christian student leading a class in protest against a supposedly anti-Christian educator isn’t an isolated event. A week earlier, a professor at the University of Central Florida sent an open letter to his class after a student allegedly stood up in class and called on his fellow students to refuse to participate in a discussion of “religious bigotry.”
The cultural “script” for both of these incidents appears to be Harold Cronk’s recent film “God’s Not Dead,” in which Radisson (Kevin Sorbo), a philosophy professor, requires his freshman students to sign a pledge avowing that, “God is dead.” One Christian student (played by Shane Harper) resists, rhetorically humiliating Radisson in front of his class, and inspires non-Christian classmates to convert. The film, an over-the-top piece of anti-intellectualism, portrays educators as modern-day Pharisees who promote ideology rather than critical thinking.
So it’s hardly surprising that some Christian students began performing this script in the first week of classes. By equating educators with the villains of the New Testament, ordinary classroom encounters can be transformed into an extension of Biblical narratives. In Cronk’s film, Harper’s character is compared to a Christian facing martyrdom in the Coliseum. Why would anyone want to be an ordinary student when they could be a hero of Biblical proportions? The “God’s Not Dead” script also harnesses ordinary adolescent resistance to authority and gives it cosmic significance. Swenson said of school authorities, “I want them to realize that God is in control and they’re not.”
Jason Bivins notes that for the New Christian Right, schools are a site not just of political but cosmic struggle against the forces of evil. This is a worldview in which ordinary policies can be seen as demonic persecution. Just as claims of a “War on Christmas” equated saying “Happy Holidays” with anti-Christian hostility, policies about saying “bless you” at inappropriate times may soon become the next battlefield of the culture wars.
The conservative Leadership Institute has already begun reporting on other professors who discourage saying “bless you” during lectures. Moving forward in this environment will require better training for teachers, administrators, and policy makers around such issues as the First Amendment, religious pluralism, and conflict resolution.
But clearly the best way to thwart the “God’s Not Dead” script is to look as little like Professor Radisson as possible.