'Friendly Atheist' and Pro-Family Group Wage Public Conflict

An Illinois conservative family group and a self-claimed "friendly atheist" have found themselves in a battle of words that began with a warning about a nationwide kiss-in.

"It seems I have a conservative 'family' group angry with me because of this website. And they're trying to attack my character (and my teaching position) as a result," wrote Hemant Mehta, author of I Sold My Soul on eBay, on his blog last week.

That "angry" group is the Illinois Family Institute, a nonprofit organization that serves to educate the public about issues that affect the family and traditional values.

IFI had recently sent an e-mail to administrators and school board members at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville to inform them about the ideas Mehta promotes on his "Friendly Atheist" blog – ideas that parents could find troubling. Mehta is a math teacher at the school.

The e-mail was sent after Mehta criticized and seemingly mocked IFI's alert to subscribers about the "Great Nationwide Homosexual Kiss-In" on Aug. 15. Laurie Higgins, director of the Division of School Advocacy for IFI, was warning families who are opposed to homosexual behavior to avoid Chicago's Millennium Park where the event was to take place.

In a sarcastic blog post, Mehta wrote, "Of course, the abstinence-only crowd sees this (gay kiss-in) as pure evil."

The atheist author noted in his blog that Higgins equated homosexual behavior to pedophilia and incest, which he said was a ridiculous claim.

"The only thing that could make this kiss-in even better is if it took place just outside Higgins' house," he stated sarcastically.

"...Higgins can do whatever she'd like to with her children. She might feel more comfortable if each kid came equipped with a blindfold. She could then tie it around them in case they dare go out in public where (*gasp*) gay people might be engaging in some harmless PDA."

Waging the conflict in public, Higgins denounced the atheist's comments in an open letter to Mehta on the IFI website.

She first stressed that she never suggested to school administrators that he be fired or that he should resign.

Then defending her previous statements, Higgins said she has made it clear that she was simply trying to inform leaders in District 204 about Mehta's "vindictive, irresponsible, and unprofessional public statement" that the kiss-in should take place outside her house.

Her goal, she explained, was to provide information to parents in the school district "about the nature of the ideas you express and endorse on your public blog so that they can make informed decisions as to whether they want their children to spend a school year under your tutelage."

"You (Mehta) fail to acknowledge a central point that I addressed in my two articles, which is that many teens are unduly influenced by emotion and the cult of personality, and therefore are predisposed to look favorably on the ideas of teachers whom they find cool or charismatic or funny or kind or anti-tradition," Higgins added. "Adolescence is also a time of rebellion which is why many teens are attracted to rebellious, anti-establishment people and ideas.

"If students search your name and come upon your blog, they will be exposed to your endorsement and promotion of ideas that some parents may find deeply troubling."

Drawing from a recent case in Orangevale, Calif., Higgins reminded Mehta about cheerleading coach Carlie Christine whose previous work as a Playboy model raised concerns among parents. The coach was fired.

Teachers have a First Amendment right to blog or speak publicly about anything they want, the family group director acknowledged. But she added that having the right to speak does not guarantee public approval.

School board member Mark Metzger replied to Higgins' e-mail, rebuking her action.

"Have you considered the possibility that if your actions caused Mr. Mehta to suffer consequences in his employment, you'd be subjecting yourself and/or your organization to liability? That's potentially unwise to your organization's self-sufficiency, surviival (sic) and mission," Metzger stated, according to IFI.

Mehta has not lost his job, the atheist said on his blog.

"My superiors respect my right to free speech and their concern is with my professional work, not my private life."

Mehta emphasized in his blog that he respects the separation of church and state and keeps his religious and social views out of the classroom.

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