If you must: Pray at home, not at school.
Raising His Voice
By Pam Lambert
Defying Georgia's Moment-of-Silence Law May Cost This Teacher His Job
THE NEW SCHOOL YEAR WAS ONLY minutes old when Brian Bown gave his sophomore world-history students a lesson they won't soon forget. He had just launched into a lecture on the Protestant Reformation when principal Delores Hendrix's voice came crackling over the public-address system at South Gwinnett High School in Snellville, Ga., 25 miles northeast of Atlanta. Hendrix was ready to lead the daily 60 seconds of "quiet reflection" that became Georgia law in July. Bown was not. "I told the students they could do what they wanted to do," he says, "but I was going to teach."
As a few teenagers pulled out Bibles and others simply listened, Bown, 41, continued discussing Martin Luther—one of his heroes—and his defiance of the Catholic Church. Ironically, within two days he would be talking about Luther in a very different context. Addressing reporters outside the U.S. Courthouse in Atlanta on Aug. 24, Bown compared himself to the 16th-century religious rebel as he described the suit he had filed to challenge the constitutionality of the moment of silence—and to save his job, from which he had been suspended the day before.
"The clear intent of this law is to bring prayer back into the schools," says Bown, who was raised an Episcopalian and prays every day before leaving for school. "I believe it is totally abhorrent to ask any teacher to preside over something so obviously unconstitutional. If I were to back off, I could never go into a classroom again."
That wouldn't appear to bother George G. Thompson, Gwinnett County's superintendent of schools, who suspended Bown with pay pending a board hearing later this month. (Bown had made his views known in advance to both school officials and the media. He was suspended the second day of the term after refusing to change his stand.) Thompson has also recommended that Bown be fired for "conduct unbecoming a teacher." That, he says, includes disrupting opening day with his "very confrontational" behavior. "From our point of view, this is an issue of professional conduct—of how Mr. Bown handled his objection," says Thompson, who regards the moment of silence as "harmless." Regardless of what the board decides, Bown says he will pursue his legal challenge of the Georgia statute.
During his own high school days in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, Ill., Bown—the youngest of three sons of Larson Bown, an engineering company manager, and his wife, Norma Jean, a onetime band singer with Bob Hope, Tommy Dorsey and Gene Krupa—was a far cry from the man who now proclaims, "I never, ever keep my mouth shut." A self-described nerd, he says he started coming into his own—and developing an interest in civil liberties—while earning his bachelor's degree in political science at Illinois State. After getting a master's in education from Chicago's Loyola University, Bown went to work as a newspaper stringer covering high school sports. Sports-writing got him into what he calls "the real me"—teaching.
"I always had this ability to bring people out. I could get the crankiest old-fart coach to tell me what he really felt about the game," recalls Bown as he relaxes with his Siamese cat, Kitty, in the sparsely furnished house he has rented since his divorce last year after six years of marriage. "I remember thinking that if I could have that effect on those knuckleheads, imagine what I could do in a classroom."
What Bown seems to have been doing at South Gwinnett for the past five years is shaking things up. He made the debate team nationally competitive, but in 1992 was forced to step down as coach because of what Thompson calls "problems of supervision of students." Among them was an incident reportedly involving alcohol use on a road trip—something Bown's lawyers have advised him not to discuss. Though some students criticize his liberal views and abrasive style, others praise him even if, like Heather Barton, 16, they don't always see eye-to-eye. Barton, a member of Active Christian Teens, says Bown is "the best [teacher] I ever had because he challenges you to stand up for what you think."
Snellville has been forced to do just that. Bown says he has received phone threats but also dozens of messages of support from local residents and others. At South Gwinnett, students sport competing buttons, some proclaiming, "Honor the moment of silence," while others say, "Pray at home, not at school."
The debate, Bown maintains, is exactly what he's after. "I've always seen my primary job as equipping kids with abilities to think and evaluate so that when they go out in the world they can make the right decisions—which very well may not be my decisions," he says. "I want them to argue with me, to know what they stand for—and to be willing to take the consequences."