Mayan and Balen Essak, student activists
Mayan and Balen Essak have each received a $1,000 scholarship from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The brothers attend Shorewood High School in Shorewood, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb.
The brothers received the awards for speaking out in their community and taking action that got religious symbols removed from their public high school football team’s helmets.
Last fall, Mayan and Balen read in their school’s newspaper that their football team, which partners with a Catholic school, had changed its logo to incorporate a Catholic bishop’s hat with a cross on it. The brothers jumped into action and contacted their school’s principal and attended a school board meeting.
The school’s principal and school board acknowledged the mistake, apologized and removed the religious decals before the next game. Mayan and Balen had successfully ended the state/church violation at their school, but continued to deal with the fallout from their peers and community.
“We had to explain countless times to oblivious peers why having a cross on a public school’s football helmet isn’t acceptable,” the brothers wrote.
They come from a family of active freethinkers. Their parents, Jennifer and Sam Essak, were part of FFRF’s lawsuit in 1996 which declared Wisconsin’s Good Friday holiday unconstitutional.
Mayan and Balen wrote that they will continue to fight for their freedom from religion and hope other people will continue to join them.
“America was not founded on Christian values but on moral principles,” they wrote. “Working to remove the cross from our school’s helmets was a rewarding experience, but also an eye-opening one.”
FFRF gave out several student activist scholarships in 2012. Twelve-year-old Maia Disbrow spoke out against government prayer in her Tennessee community. Shawna Scott, a doctoral student at the University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, got graduation prayer stopped. Matthew Nielson, a high school senior in South Carolina, challenged his public high school’s graduation prayer. Jeff Shott, a Tennessee high school student, was forced to change clothes by school officials after dressing up as Jesus on Fictional Character Day. Tennessee high school student Krystal Myers wrote a school newspaper article discussing atheism that school officials banned from publication. Jessica Ahlquist, a Rhode Island high school student, successfully led a lawsuit to remove a prayer banner from her public school’s hallway amid attacks and verbal abuse from her community and government officials.