Maia Disbrow, a 12-year-old from Hixson, Tenn., has received $1,000 as a student activist from the Freedom From Religion Foundation this month, for speaking before the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners to ask them to drop government prayer.
She becomes the fifth and youngest student to receive a student activist award from FFRF in 2012, and the third student awardee from Tennessee this year. Krystal Myers, 18, of Lenoir City, Tenn., received a $1,000 award from FFRF this spring after her column, “No Rights: The Life of an Atheist,” was banned from her high school newspaper. Jeff Shott, 17, of Spring Hill, Tenn., also received $1,000 after dressing up as Jesus Christ for Fictional Character Day and protesting state-church entanglements at his high school.
Maia got involved when she accompanied her father to a board meeting where he spoke up against government prayers, and witnessed the board giving a special award to the preacher. Maia decided on her own that she wanted to speak against prayers at the July 18 meeting.
“I realized that there were some things I'd like to say to them. It took me a while to decide because even though I go to a middle school for the arts that is supposed to accept everyone, I was worried. During elementary school, I was bullied about my beliefs and whenever the subject of my religion, or lack thereof, came up, my social status dropped for a few days. When I realized that the county commissioners were actually behaving like a bunch of fifth-grade bullies, I sat down and started writing my address to them.”
Good morning. My name is Maia Disbrow, and I am twelve years old. I am a perfectly normal young adult, although some of my friends would beg to differ.
I was present at the meeting at which my dad spoke. The prayer was very rude to me and some of my closest friends, not to mention parts of my family.
My dad did not put me up to this. I came because I care about this and things like it. All through elementary school, I was teased and ridiculed by people who I thought were my friends. Whenever the subject of me being a freethinker came up, I was singled out. By my friends. You are doing the same thing that they did to me at every meeting you have. Singling me out. Singling out every single person in Hamilton County who is not Christian.
It is not fair for you to pray openly to your God without praying to all the others as well. I believe a moment of silence would accommodate all beliefs, not just one. And after speaking today, I hope I have some friends left at school next year.
Click here to view Maia's speech.
Maia will be entering seventh grade at the Center for Creative Arts. She loves to read, having taught herself to read at 18 months, will be appearing in a local production of “Medea,” has a dog and two guinea pigs, and a younger brother, Logan.
Contentious prayers before the board are the subject of a federal lawsuit filed July 3 by Hamilton County residents Tommy Coleman, a secular humanist, and Brandon Jones, who identifies as an atheist.
FFRF has three formally endowed annual student activist awards of $1,000 each: The Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award endowed by a West Coast FFRF couple, the Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award, partly from a bequest by Catherine supplemented by smaller contributions by many FFRF members, and the new Paul J. Gaylor Memorial Student Activist Award, created by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
This year, victorious Rhode Island school prayer litigant Jessica Ahlquist received the Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award, doubled as a one-time bonus to $2,000 after her state legislator called her “an evil little thing,” and her victory set off a new wave of harassment.
In June, Matthew “Max” Nielson received the Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award of $1,000 as principal plaintiff in FFRF’s new lawsuit challenging illegal graduation prayers at his high school in Columbia, S.C.
Last year, FFRF awarded six student activist awards, five to high school students and one to a middle school student.
Maia is tied with another 12-year-old for being FFRF’s youngest honoree. In 1996, FFRF gave a Freethinker of the Year Award, Jr. to Michael Bristor, age 12, from Minnesota. His name had been dropped from the honor roll when he was six, after his family had protested illegal classroom prayer and the school board did nothing about daily harassment. Michael’s battle, with the help of the ACLU and Minnesota Atheists, ended when he receive his honor roll certificate six years late.
“We are so impressed with activism by high schoolers and even middle schoolers in areas of the country that are hotbeds of intolerance, and are standing up not just for their rights but for the Constitution,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Note: Nominees for student activist awards are exceeding FFRF’s endowed awards. If you would like to endow and name a one-time or annual student activist award, please contact or phone 608/256-8900. Your tax-deductible donation will go directly to reward student or youth activists.
Read about FFRF's other student activist awards here.