Graduating seniors object to illegal prayer, headline Freethought Radio in May

FFRF awards brave grads $1,000 student activist scholarships

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to be awarding $1,000 student activist awards to two brave graduating high school seniors in the bible belt who courageously protested unlawful graduation prayers.

Both seniors have been offered $1,000 cash scholarships. One award, the Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist award, is endowed annually by a kind West Coast couple. The other is the Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award.

Harrison HopkinsHarrison Hopkins, graduating next week from Laurens District High School in Laurens, S.C., contacted FFRF, asking the state/church watchdog to object to an unlawful senior class vote over prayer at commencements. FFRF’s Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent three strong letters of complaint. When the high school suspended the vote, it created a community uproar. Harrison went public, explaining to media, including TV, why religion in public schools is unconstitutional and divisive. He has faced rumors of assault and a whispering campaign.

Listen to Harrison's interview on Freethought Radio May 21.  He will receive his student activist award in person at FFRF’s 2011 annual convention in Hartford, Conn., on the weekend of Oct. 7-9, 2011. 

Damon Fowler, who graduated May 21 from Bastrop High School, Bastrop, La., is receiving a $1,000 scholarship for his courage and conviction in protesting illegal graduation prayer at his commencement. Damon contacted his school district’s superintendent on May 15, warning the principal that if prayer stayed on the schedule, he would contact the ACLU. The local newspaper the following day announced prayer would be dropped, then quoted teacher Mitzi Quinn criticizing the decision and making this derogatory comment: “What’s even more sad is this is a student who really hasn’t contributed anything to graduation or their classmates.” (Damon had never taken a class with this teacher.) FFRF sent a letter to the district asking for the teacher to be disciplined.

 At a May 19 awards ceremony for graduating seniors, a student who had previously been selected to give the invocation announced a moment of silence, then identified herself as a Christian and prayed to Jesus to loud cheers and applause by Damon’s classmates. FFRF then complained on Damon's behalf when he was told he would receive his diploma last at the graduation ceremony.

The school, at FFRF’s request, placed Damon back in his scheduled place in line for graduation, but ignored FFRF’s letter objecting to the scheduled moment of silence as a sham. Stephanie Schmitt, FFRF attorney, wrote: “This student was originally chosen for the invocation and is brought on stage for no other reason than to allow an opportunity for prayer to be given.” At Damon's graduation a student subsequently led the entire stadium in a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. A follow-up joint letter by FFRF and other groups was sent on May 26 to protest the District’s mishandling of this situation.

Damon will be a guest on Freethought Radio’s Saturday show (which streams live May 28 and is later podcast).

“We are so impressed with these young men, who have the guts to stand up to rogue school officials and a mob mentality by classmates, in order to defend the U.S. Constitution and freedom of conscience,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

“The picture of an entire school body arrayed against a single minority student is shocking and disturbing. Instead of treating them as pariahs, the schools ought to be honoring these students for standing up for constitutional principles.”

FFRF has established two annual student activist awards, each endowed for $1,000 annually. But already this year, FFRF has designated four student activists to receive $1,000 cash scholarships. Sarah McNair of Giles County, Va., received an award for speaking out against Ten Commandments in public schools there. At its July event at Lake Hypatia, Ala., FFRF is giving an award to Duncan Henderson, a 15-year-old in Auburn, Ala., who has courageously fought for the right to have a freethought club at his public school, but has been censored by school authorities. Duncan was recently featured on "Nick News."

FFRF would love to be able to recognize even more courageous students and youth activists. You may make a donation deductible for income tax purposes to FFRF scholarships. All donations will go to deserving students. Or consider endowing a new formal student activist award via FFRF.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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