One Friday afternoon, Betty Ogletree’s daughter RaMae came home in tears. “I can’t do this anymore,” RaMae cried, as Ogletree remembers it. RaMae was a straight-A fourth grader at Watauga Elementary School, a public K-5 in the bucolic town of Abingdon in southwest Virginia. But in a community where most families trumpeted their conservative Christianity, she was marked as an outsider for her lack of belief in the Gospel of Jesus. “Can you please homeschool me?” her mother recalls her pleading.
The bullying started in first grade, when Ogletree’s daughter’s classmates started pressuring her to attend a Good News Club, an after-school Bible class intended to indoctrinate young children in a conservative form of evangelical Christianity. Until 2001, Good News Clubs were generally excluded from public schools out of concern that their presence would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. But a Supreme Court ruling that year, Good News Club v. Milford Central School, deemed their presence in public schools legal.
According to Ogletree, the club’s appearance at her daughter’s public elementary school had an immediate impact. Most of the girls RaMae considered her friends signed up for the Good News Club on Tuesday afternoons. Lunchtime conversations quickly started to revolve around God and Jesus. RaMae, who had been raised with a sense of skepticism about conservative religious doctrine, made an effort to stand up for her own beliefs, and she resisted her friends’ repeated efforts to recruit her to the club. One day, however, the girls decided on an aggressive new tactic. They took away RaMae’s juice and told her they wouldn’t give it back until she sang a song about Jesus.
“This is the day my child came home and collapsed in a pile of tears on my couch,” Ogletree says. “I said, ‘No more!’ I started making phone calls and plans.’”
First, Ogletree complained to the administration. But she felt they sided with the children attending the club. “It figures,” she says ruefully. “At the school entryway there’s a large sign that spells it out, ‘In God We Trust.’”
So Ogletree made the decision to homeschool. “While some tend to see religious bullying as a ‘right,’ it is at the heart [the same as] every other kind of bullying—mean, cruel, and without forethought,” Ogletree says. “There are children committing suicide all over the US because of bullying. I refuse to let my child become a statistic.”
“I could have brought in the ACLU,” Ogletree adds, explaining why she didn’t press the administration harder on the issue. “But in this area it would have caused a shit storm and I didn’t want to put my family through that.”
There is an idea in our culture, planted and carefully tended by culture warriors on the right, that America’s public schools are godless. And most people have the impression that homeschooling is mainly for religious fundamentalists and other extremists who want to shield their children from the perceived secularism of public education. But Ogletree and her family are part of a small but growing group that is moving in the exact opposite direction. Dismayed with the overt religiosity and faith-based pressure they encounter in their public schools, they are opting to homeschool. And they are anything but extremists.