For HSLDA attorney, Scott Somerville, it was another long day of religious exemption hearings in Roanoke County, Virginia. Five families were scheduled to appear before the school superintendent to explain why it would be a sin for them to keep their children in public school. Under Virginia law, the school board must excuse children from attendance if they and their parents are sincerely opposed to public school attendance for religious reasons. The first four hearings went smoothly enough, although the superintendent and school attorneyboth of whom are born-again Christianskept asking why the children couldnt stay in the public schools to be salt and light. And then the last family arrived.
The Deyerle family joined HSLDA in mid-November when they decided to pull their eleven-year-old son, Paul, out of public school. They wanted to claim a religious exemption, but their case was somewhat unusual because their daughter Mandi, a senior in the public high school, wanted to finish out her high school education. Mandi was a varsity cheerleader and a leader of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). Her parents explained that she always stood up for what she believed on campus, and that they had left it up to her to decide between home and public school.
Mandi repeatedly took a stand for truth when teachers advocated views she thought were wrong. But the week before the Deyerles were scheduled to appear before school officials for their religious exemption hearing, the school sponsored a speaker who went too far. Mandi made up her mind that it was time to give up her diploma, her prom, and her pom-poms in order to be right with God. Here is Mandis story:
HSLDA: Mandi, when I first talked to your parents, they told me you had decided you wanted to finish out your senior year. What made that so important to you?
MANDI: I was looking forward to graduation ceremonies, walking across the stage to receive my diploma, and of course, my senior prom.
HSLDA: I understand you were fairly visible on campusyou had been captain of the freshman cheerleading squad and vice president of the local Fellowship of Christian Athletes. You were one of the organizers of the See You at the Pole prayer meeting. Did you often speak out on controversial issues at school?
MANDI: Yes, frequently. When teachers would talk about evolution, abortion, or other issues, I always gave my opinion on the topics according to what the Bible teaches.
HSLDA: How did the teachers handle controversial subjects in class discussions?
MANDI: They explained to the class that everyone was to respect everyone elses opinions, that no discussions would ever turn into arguments, and everyone had a right to their own opinion. Those guidelines applied to everyone else except me.
HSLDA: How did it work for you?
MANDI: After I listened to what everyone else said, I tried to explain how I believed and what the Bible taught. But more often than not, no one would listen to me, not even the teachers. They often laughed, and implied that what I said was stupid.
HSLDA: That sounds very unfair! Can you give me an example?
MANDI: Yes, one instance that stands out in my mind is a discussion during my sophomore year about abortion. We were talking in class about if abortion was okay or not in certain instances such as rape or faulty condoms. I expressed my belief that God created life and it was never okay in any circumstance to take a life away. Several students asked me if I was raped and got pregnant would I still have the child? I replied that it wouldnt be the babys fault if I was raped, so why punish the baby? Nobody believed that I would react like that. I was called a liar and was made fun of. I learned through the years that my opinions werent the most popular and to let the insults roll off my back. But I wasnt prepared to be harassed after class! Some guys followed me down the hall yelling obscenities and saying things like, Hey, if we rape Mandi, shell still have the baby.
HSLDA: Was it just the students who attacked your beliefs?
MANDI: No, it got to the point that whenever I raised my hand to share my views, the teachers would cut me off, laugh, and say things like Whatever, Mandi. We need to get back to the lesson. I was often told to just be quiet and stop trying to change others minds.
HSLDA: Werent there any other students who stood up for your right to express your opinion?
MANDI: Yes, there were a few. But they learned to just be quiet and lay low after being singled out and made fun of by other students several times.
HSLDA: Mandi, you and your parents went to the superintendent to explain why you were leaving the public school. How did you feel as you went in to face the superintendent?
MANDI: As I walked into the room, I felt a little nervous and on the defensive. But after I prayed about the situation with you and my parents, I felt totally at peace and I was ready to stand before kings and queens. I was ready to tell my story of the problems I encountered as a Christian in a public school.
HSLDA: What were you giving up?
MANDI: I was giving up my high school diploma, my chance to walk across the stage at graduation, senior activities, and my senior prom. I had left the cheerleading squad (a sport that Ive been involved in since I was seven years old) because of foul play going on by members of the staff. But I really dont feel a sense of loss. I feel a sense of accomplishment and a desire to move on. I did everything that I believe God would have me do in public schools. I am ready to move on.
HSLDA: What was it that finally made you decide you had to leave it all behind?
MANDI: My school sponsored a homosexual who is infected with AIDS to come and speak in one of my classes.
HSLDA: Why was that the last straw?
MANDI: I could accept this nice, charming man as one of Gods children, but I couldnt agree with the schools implication that I must also accept his lifestyle.
HSLDA: AIDS is lethal, Mandi. Do you feel like the school was doing its job to teach students how to avoid it?
MANDI: No! They were so concerned with being tolerant and politically correct that they would not take a moral position, even on this deadly issue.
HSLDA: Did you feel like you could explain to your fellow students that this charming human being was going to die as a result of his lifestyle?
MANDI: It was one thing to discuss abstractions, like abortion or evolution, but this was different. This time they put me in an impossible situation. Sure, I could tell my classmates the medical facts about how homosexual conduct transmits the AIDS virus. I could have explained the brutal truth that this nice man had made his choices and was now suffering the consequences. I could have done my part to try to save the lives of my classmatesbut if I did, they would accuse me of hating this man and call me a homophobe. I finally realized I just couldnt win.
HSLDA: Didnt you have an equal right to share your beliefs?
MANDI: I had already discovered that everyone can share their opinions, except Christians. I was not given an equal opportunity to share.
HSLDA: I understand your younger brother Paul had some problems of his own. Can you tell us about that?
MANDI: Paul was preparing to eat lunch in the school cafeteria and before he ate he bowed his head to give thanks. Then a cafeteria worker told him to stop, that prayer wasnt allowed in school, and that if he did it again he would be sent to the principals office.
HSLDA: And your parents told me about how he was sent to the principal, that time. How did your little brother feel about this?
MANDI: My parents explained to Paul that he could pray in school, but it is intimidating for a child to be threatened with punishment for praying.
HSLDA: I was really surprised to hear that you had these kinds of problems in Roanoke County, Virginia. The superintendent of schools is a born-again Christian, and they start each school board meeting with prayer. How could this happen?
MANDI: There is a lot of misinformation in the public schools. Obviously there are employees who dont understand what the rights of Christian students are at school.
HSLDA: Mandi, do you feel like youre just giving up the fight? Do you feel like theyve won?
MANDI: No, my light was being hidden under a bushel. Ive done everything God had for me to do there. Its time to move on and let the light of Jesus shine through me in other places.
HSLDA: Mandi, a lot of Christians send their children to public schools to be salt and light. They believe their kids will get an opportunity to share the truth with other children. What would you say to such parents?
MANDI: Jesus said, You are the salt of the earth, but He also said, if the salt loses its savor, it is good for nothing. What really broke my heart in public school was watching my Christian friends slowly losing their savor. Public school, even a conservative school district like mine, teaches Christian children to hide their lights under a bushel. I finally realized I wasnt going to get my chance to share the light of the world until I got out of the public school and into the real world.
HSLDA: Mandi, welcome to home schoolingand welcome to the real world. Its going to be a better place with you shining Christs light in it!
MANDI: I would like to express special thanks to Duane and Tammy Colwell for all their help to my parents with home schooling. Thank you, Mr. Somerville, for everything youve done for my family and me.