I made the mistake of commenting intelligently on a thread populated by very ignorant people…

8 minute read

December 12, 2014, 11:07 AM

…and for that, I am filled with regret.  I thought that perhaps these people would be able to respond to some level of reason.  I was quite wrong on that point.  This time, it was on the “Wilson Memorial Hornets Football” page on Facebook.  I don’t remember how I ended up landing on this page, since I don’t really care about Augusta County high school sports, but somehow, there I was.

For those not familiar, Wilson Memorial High School is located in Fishersville, Virginia.  The school was built at the same time as Stuarts Draft High School, i.e. where I went to high school, and is identical to Stuarts Draft architecturally.  The two schools are traditionally rivals, and play each other every year in football, though now, I believe, as an exhibition game, since the two schools are now in different conferences.

This Facebook page for Wilson football, however, has been a bit controversial.  On December 6, the page’s owner made the following post:

"What a Game!! Faith. Family. Football. We Are... ...WILSON!"

In the comments for this post, someone named Rebekah Johnson said this:

"Rather than double down on your flagrant defiance of the Constitution and its separation clause, you might think about the consequences it will have on the students that you are paid by the state to be entrusted with. Deleting the warning does not negate Federal Law. We have the screen capture so think about taking the time to fix your verbiage rather than trying to censor and cover up."

The gist of it all is that Johnson was responding to the “faith” part of the post.  Wilson is a public school, and is thus funded primarily by tax dollars.  So an explicit endorsement of religion from the school would be a major no-no.  On its face, whether or not the page owner intended the inclusion of “faith” in the original post to be a religious statement is debatable, but Johnson took it as such, which I consider a reasonable interpretation, though not the only one that I can think of.  Taking it as she did, her argument was reasonable enough, though I probably would have phrased it a bit more politely than that.  That comment generated some responses, first from the page:

So now it comes out: this is not, in fact, a page operated by or otherwise affiliated with the school.  That does change things.  Interesting.  Then the other responses mostly came out like these two:

"Faith, Family, Football, the constitution says freedom of religion not freedom from religion. If you don't like it, go troll another page."

"From what I've gathered Rebekah Johnson this page nor this post was shoved down your throat. And for you to go out of your way to cause trouble over such a simple and harmless phrase. The only thing Faith, Family & Football was trying to accomplish is to put your beliefs (whether Christian in nature or not) first, your family second and football third. It was created to remind people that while football is a way of life, it should not rule your life. If you don't care to see such a phrase feel free to unlike this Wilson Memorial Football fan page. I, like many others will not miss your presence."

On the first note, the First Amendment, which Chris Robinson cites, reads as such:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The key word here is “Congress”.  Therefore, we’re speaking about governmental bodies (applied to state law in 1947 with Everson v. Board of Education) when it comes to the First Amendment.  But since this page is not affiliated with the school or any other governmental organization, the First Amendment doesn’t apply since we’re dealing with private entities here.  The government is not going to get involved in this discussion, but I, as another private entity, have every right to call them an idiot if I choose.

Then regarding the second comment by Erin L. Jones, that posits an alternate interpretation of the faith-family-football wording.  Note, however, the unnecessarily confrontational tone, along with the “get lost” type of sentiment conveyed by both Jones and Robinson, as well as the page owner.

One would think, however, that the discussion would stay within the confines of the faith-family-football post and die out on its own.  And if you thought that, you would be incorrect.  The page owner then decided to fan the flames a little bit more, posting this along with a screenshot of Johnson’s post:

"Dear Friends of the Wilson Memorial Hornets Football page, This page was originally created to provide game updates and highlights for fans of The Wilson Hornets Football team. I am not employed by WMHS or act as an agent of WMHS, VHSL or any official body. I am a parent and a fan of The Wilson Hornets who wanted to provide a site to update game information to those unable to attend those initial road contests. I found that I enjoyed providing the play and scoring updates, so this page has continued throughout the season. Over the recent weeks the number of friends of the page has grown beyond my original intent. With that growth in fans the page has also caught the attention of individuals merely trolling for trouble. A post after the game containing "Faith, Family, Football" has resulted in an attempt of intimidation and threat from an individual. While it was never the purpose of this page to express religious or political views, as the creator and administrator of this page I will not be forced into hiding my personal beliefs. This individual would prefer the choice of another word as "Faith" has religious connotation. My page will continue to use "Faith" because it specifically has religious connotation. I will continue to post positive expressions and share pictures and updates for the remainder of this special season. I invite fans to continue sharing positive posts as well. I trust that anyone offended by any post made or shared by this page simply "unlike" the page and troll elsewhere. Thank you to those who choose to stay. Who am I... Simply a Christian and a fan of Wilson and unapologetic for both. FAITH! FAMILY! FOOTBALL!"

What drives people to make these sorts of posts that fan the flames over a discussion that was contained within a single thread?  The discussion would have died out on its own in a day or so, but why should that stop the drama train?  At this point, I felt compelled to add my two cents about the whole thing:

"See, here's your problem: prior to this post, you appear to have made little effort to indicate prior to this post that the page is not, in fact, operated by Wilson Memorial High School, but rather is just a page by a fan. Therefore a reasonable person would think that it is operated by the school itself. As a public school, they are barred from endorsing any religion for reasons of separation of church and state. As a fan page, say whatever you want. I strongly recommend making your page's "unofficial" status a bit more prominent (like in the page title) to indicate that you're just a fan like everyone else, and not speaking on behalf of the school."
(And yes, that first sentence received the stamp of approval from the Department of Redundancy Department.)

If this sort of advice sounds familiar, it’s because I discussed it in this space back in January, at that time framing it in terms of the infamous “my opinions are my own” social media disclaimer.  In this case, the same concept of branding yourself properly still holds, but it’s about indicating that you’re a fan-made page vs. anything official.  When people would make fansites on the Web back in the day, it was fairly clear that they were fansites, mostly due to rather amateurish design.  But with Facebook, pages get a pretty standardized look, making it harder to tell who is who.  In this case, I came to the conclusion that a reasonable person would confuse this for an official school-endorsed page.  I know that I, for one, did.

When I made my post, I was trying to help explain and offer advice going forward.  The replies made it abundantly clear that I had wasted my time.  The first comment came from the page owner:

"The fact the title doesn't say Wilson Memorial High School should lead a reasonable individual to conclude that this is not an official page."

Apparently “high school” is a magic word that denotes that a page is official?  That’s news to me.  It’s not like I’ve never seen schools drop the type of institution that they are when referring to their athletic teams in an official capacity.  “Stuarts Draft Cougars” and “James Madison Dukes” have both been used officially by those entities.  Therefore, would it not seem reasonable that a page titled “Wilson Memorial Hornets Football” would be an official page?  Brand yourself accordingly.

Then Scott Wakefield had this to say:

"Schools need more God and less government. You don't need to say you are not affiliated with the school, as long as you do not enforce people to pray or believe a certain way, schools have every right to allow prayer and encourage prayer. That was the way it was intended by the founding fathers. The written documents of history prove that. People actually should read them and the Constitution."

Considering that we’re talking about a public school here, I’m going to read “public schools” into this, even though Wakefield did not say this explicitly.  That said, wow.  Just wow.  Kind of reminds me of the “keep your government hands off my Medicare” bit from a few years ago, where someone didn’t recognize that Medicare is a government program to begin with.  Likewise, the public school system is an arm of the local government, and as such is not allowed to officially sanction any religion or religious activities.

On that note, I always find it interesting that the people who advocate for these sorts of things always conveniently forget that nothing is stopping anyone from being religious in a public school on their own.  The school can’t lead a prayer or conduct other religious activities in an official capacity, but nothing is stopping someone from individually praying at the beginning of the school day, at lunch, or whenever they feel they need supernatural assistance.  Likewise, someone can bring a Bible to school and read it during whatever downtime they might have.  And students can start a student-led religious club at school.  My high school had a Bible club that prayed around the flagpole on some mornings before school, and if not mistaken, Fellowship of Christian Athletes also existed at my high school.  This was all “above board” and out in the open.  The school had nothing to do with them other than approving them as student organizations, the same way that they did with any other student group.

Likewise, it is possible to have religious functions on a school’s property.  When I was in middle school, the sanctuary and fellowship hall at the church that we attended underwent a major renovation, which rendered both spaces unusable for a period of about eight months while the construction was underway.  The church made arrangements to use the cafeteria at the nearby Stuarts Draft Elementary School for Sunday services.  I don’t know what the specific contractual arrangements were, but it was done, and apparently, it was good.

Then Michael Todd Plecker said this:

"Why don't you try lifting people up rather than crusing for opportunities to tear them down. On another note you are completely wrong about Separation of Church and State and why it was instituted. You and others like you cherry picked the first few sentences without reading the entire clause."

Was I not trying to help?  All I suggested was stronger branding on the page to indicate its unofficial nature.  After all, a public entity can’t formally endorse a religion, and this entire dust-up was caused by a lack of clarity as to who was operating the page.

After reading that, I had to question whether Plecker understood the Establishment Clause as written in the Constitution, as it is not a few sentences, but rather, it is part of one sentence.  However, the wall of text that Plecker then proceeded to post (which I cut after the first paragraph – I will never get the time back that I spent reading that much larger wall of text) confirmed that a civics lesson is in order:

"Ben Schumin, I noticed on your home page that you called us all ignorant. I see you're practicing your enlightened acceptance of other view points. Before you call others ignorant maybe you should pick up a history book. I'll save you some time. Please read below and have a Merry CHRSTmas. There are two mistakes that are made when opponents of religion make this reference. First, they neglect to continue quoting the First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It seems, then, that the federal government wanted to remain neutral on this issue. But what about the states? The First Amendment makes a qualification that, “Congress shall…”, while the Tenth Amendment of the federal constitution leaves that possibility of politico-religious matters to the states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  As Steven Waldman, author of Founding Faith wrote, “[James] Madison reluctantly had to concede that the First Amendment would only apply to the federal government, not to state or local governments, which could aid—or even oppress—religion as much as they wanted.” And historically speaking, this is exactly what they did (as we will see in the next paragraph)."

This response was apparently prompted by a Facebook post that I made, which is where the title of this post came from.  And from what he wrote following that, “very ignorant people” seems to have been an accurate assessment.  As originally written, the First Amendment only applied to the federal government.  However, a number of court cases in the 20th century, taken together, apply the entire First Amendment to the states.

Then Jones returns:

"Nowhere in Faith, Family & Football is God mentioned. Faith is simply where your personal beliefs are rooted. Looking at the situation that way, it wouldn't matter whether this was an official or unofficial fan page instituted by WMHS or just a loyal fan. By all means Ben Schumin go ahead and have faith in goats or fairies or the color red. Frankly it is whatever floats your boat as long as for your own person it gives you something to believe in and rely on when you need it. Where is your right to tell us to not have faith of our own variety. Shame on you for trying to belittle our team and our team's faith in whatever power. Maybe you need to learn to have faith in something other than trying to bring other people down."

Jones basically reiterated what she said to Johnson, now directed at me.  Honestly, knowing that the page is unofficial and run by an individual, my stance is that they can say whatever they want, and I said as much.  My only concern was in the branding.  I’m not saying that anyone should or should not say something, or is or is not allowed to say something.  I’m just suggesting that it is worthwhile to make it clear about who is speaking.

And finally, from Sandy Marshall Shifflett:

"If he was paid to do this what business is it of yours . Get a life and worry about your own problem. Go Big Green!!!"

This is a viewpoint that I wasn’t expecting, because I don’t believe that this has anything to do with money, and whether or not one is getting paid to post, or doing so for free.  It has more to do with who the person at the other end of the connection is speaking for.

So all in all, my lesson from January on how to brand yourself properly rings true in a real-life example.  This entire incident could have been avoided if the page owner had branded the page as unofficial right out of the gate.  Don’t get me wrong – unofficial fan pages are great.  Because they’re a labor of love rather than the official marketing arm of the entity, the content is often much richer and more detailed than one would find in the official materials.  However, fan pages should always do their best to keep their status as unofficial pages prominent, in order to avoid confusion.