Beliefnet
HAMILTON, Ala., June 16 (AP)--Greg Thomas got along with his neighbors when they thought of him simply as the only Jew in town. They didn't understand his conversion to Judaism from Christianity a few years ago, but they tolerated it.

The Southern hospitality evaporated after Thomas complained about Christian prayers and an evangelism program conducted at Hamilton High School.

People stopped coming to plays staged by Thomas, who was artistic director for a community theater and a drama teacher at the local two-year college. Both positions were eliminated within weeks, moves prompted solely by economics, his former employers say.

Thomas is moving away, forced out by what he describes as small-town Christians who didn't appreciate his reminders about the constitutional separation of church and state.

"I rocked the boat, and I guess sometimes that's the price you pay," said Thomas, 39, a member of the town's United Methodist church until his conversion.

Jay Kaiman, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Atlanta, said what happened to Thomas isn't unusual in the rural South, where entire counties sometimes have no Jewish residents.

"There's a calculated strategy in some of these isolated places to integrate specific religious doctrine into a school environment," Kaiman said.

In Hamilton, a town of 6,300 people in rural northwest Alabama, Christianity isn't just religion--it's life.

Protestant churches surround the courthouse square. A drawing of Jesus hangs on the wall in the studio of the local cable station, TV-23.

It was on that channel where Thomas first saw the videotape of a Gospel show performed at Hamilton High during school hours in April 1999.

"We are claiming this place for the kingdom of God, that Jesus will be exalted over Hamilton High School and Middle School!" local evangelist Karen Weaton said at the start of the program, which was optional for students.

The show included student testimonials and a skit depicting a boxing match in which Jesus defeated Satan. God was the referee. Another time, Thomas watched as players and coaches prayed together on the football field at the end of a televised game.

Thomas sought help from the ADL in educating school officials about the Constitution and court rulings limiting the role of religion in public schools.

The county then held a training session for principals about religion in schools. Superintendent Bravell Jackson said coaches were barred from praying with students, and revival-like programs were banned.

"That's not what school is for," Jackson said. "We ought to leave the teaching of religion and the Bible up to the parents at home."

Then rumors spread that Thomas planned to sue the school board. The rumors weren't true, but Thomas said people stopped talking to him on the street. He said one woman called and accused him of trying to turn the school into "the Jewish League."

Thomas' shows suddenly weren't such a hot ticket. Only a few people showed up for a performance of the Holocaust opera "Brundibar" by a children's drama troupe led by Thomas.

When it came time for the Bevill Community Theater to perform a play directed by Thomas, teachers who normally brought hundreds of children stayed away. Shows were canceled, costing some $2,000 in revenues.

Bill Mayhall, head of the theater board, said teachers told him they didn't like Thomas' complaints about Christianity in the school. "Most of them said they had talked to other teachers in their grade and they felt the same way," he said. "I would describe it as a boycott."

Low attendance led to more red ink in an already tight budget, and Thomas' job of artistic director was eliminated in November.

A month later, Bevill State Community College eliminated its theater program, cutting Thomas' part-time job of seven years and leaving him without work. "We just had to close the theater department because a cost analysis showed it was losing money every year," said the dean, Camilla Benton.

Thomas plans to enroll this fall at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey to pursue a master's degree in Holocaust studies.

"I guess I'm taking the lessons I've learned in Hamilton, both good and bad, and applying it to a master's degree," Thomas said.

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