Student Activist Awards

Adam Butler – 1998

Ruth (Dixie) Jokinen Award

In 1996, Pelham High School senior Adam Butler of Alabama requested the right to form a freethought club at his high school, right in the middle of the bible belt, where religious clubs were rife. The principal shot down his right to do so under the Equal Access Act, but Adam persisted. Enlisting the help of the Alabama Freethought Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and insisting on his rights, Adam succeeded in founding the club.

He went on as a college student to found the Birmingham Freethought Society, a campus group, also working hard as communications coordinator for the Alabama Freethought Association, a Foundation chapter. In the spring of 1997, his campus society counter-picketed at a "Save our Ten Commandments Rally" held in Montgomery, Ala., to challenge rogue Judge Roy Moore and his efforts to use his court to promote and endorse the Ten Commandments. The group was interviewed by everyone from national TV, where Adam appeared, to The New York Times.

In December 1997, Adam led a delegation of freethinkers to protest a manger scene displayed on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. Adam was instrumental in erecting a freethought solstice sign on the steps to counter the manger display.

After a crude bomb set off by a religious terrorist exploded at the New Woman All Women Health Care Clinic, Birmingham, Alabama, on July 29, 1998, Adam worked actively with the newly-formed Emergency Coalition for Choice. He helped the coalition organize a March 7 rally at the clinic, a March 10 tree-planting ceremony at the site of the crater left by the bomb, and a March 14 program of remembrance for the death of a security guard and the brutal maiming of nurse Emily Lyons.

For these and many other examples of freethought activism, Adam Butler received the student activist award.

Pelham Freethought Association

Alabama's First High School Freethinkers Club Forms

By Adam Butler

My friend J. D. Chaves and I, seniors at Pelham High School, were walking down the main hallway--just as we had for the last 3 1/2 years. We talked about computers, television, girls--just as we had for the last 42 months of high school. We saw a religious sign on the wall--just as we had since we were freshmen. "First PrioriTy," the sign read (the "T" was in the form of a Christian cross). I stopped. First Priority is a Christian organization at PHS that meets on Tuesday mornings.

"I'm tired of this," I said to my friend. J.D. nodded.

"What can we do about it, though?" he asked. I then asked: legally, could they allow First Priority to meet on campus, but not a freethinker's group? J.D. smiled; it had begun.

Computer nerd that I am, I got on the Internet and furiously typed "atheist" into my web search program, and lo and behold, there was the FFRF web page. The web page interested me because it was proof that there were other freethinkers, but the most important thing about the web page was the e-mail address at the bottom of the page. I switched into my mail program and e-mailed Dan Barker.

Mr. Barker was extremely helpful; he gave me the address for information on an Alabama chapter of the FFRF, the AFA. I attended the very next meeting. Finally I wasn't alone.

Were there other freethinkers at PHS, just afraid to show themselves? I had to do something.

Well, that brings us back up to speed. J.D. and me, standing there, looking at that sign. We decided that Pelham needed a Freethinker's club. And who better to found such a club than a couple of heretics like us? As the photographer and staff reporter of my school newspaper, I wrote an editorial on our plan to create the club. The story was thrown out due to "size constraints."

Frustrated, J.D. and I took it upon ourselves to publish the letter ourselves. So, that night, I took a revised copy of the letter and $8 and had it printed 600 times. Enlisting another student (Junior Michael Disko) in our plan, we passed the letter out to every student in the lunchroom and gym lobby the next morning before school.

It didn't take long to see the letter's impact. My first period class tried to crucify me verbally and several people suddenly didn't want to be my friend anymore. J.D. had it worse. Apparently some very close friends of his had begun trying to "save" him. When I saw him in the hallway, before third period, he looked very dejected. But the real fun was yet to come!

In fourth period I was called to the office to speak with PHS Principal Tom Ferguson. Taking a deep breath, I entered the room and found that students were not allowed to pass out any type of literature without permission from the administration. I was then told, "I can assure you: there will be no 'Freethinker's Club' at PHS."

Thanks to the knowledge I gained from the AFA meetings and reading FFRF nontracts, I wasn't about to let this go. I knew my rights, and I explained them to my principal. After an hour-long meeting, I was released back to class with an "I'll think about it," and an appointment for the following week.

The next week, I dutifully attended the meeting with Mr. Ferguson, but his answer still hadn't changed. He told me to come back the next week, and "maybe there will be more to tell." I came back; the answer was the same.

I kept thinking, "Hey, he's a busy man, he'll get around to it." But it never happened. I came to his office almost every week. I gave him all kinds of information on freethinkers I (and the legality of what I wanted to do), but still no dice. After three months of this, I telephoned Pat Cleveland and requested help for our cause.

Operating under Ms. Cleveland's advice, I began writing letters to Mr. Ferguson in order to establish a "paper trail" of sorts. When he finally responded in writing, the letter was just as bad as the meetings had been; he conceded nothing, promising a decision in the near future. But this time, we had him in writing.

Soon the principal (and our school superintendent Bill Sparks) began to receive phone calls and letters from organizations he really didn't want anything to do with. In my opinion, Mr. Ferguson did not want to be the first Shelby County principal to be sued for religious bigotry. I didn't expect it to last long . . . and it didn't. I came to see him in the office and he told me that he was trying to look past his own private beliefs, and the group was allowed to meet.

After receiving permission from the administration to hold meetings, I immediately reserved the auditorium for Friday mornings. As I send this letter, I am also preparing for our first meeting. It sure does pay to complain!

One last note. The whole issue of my rights and those of my freethinker friends upset me. It was depressing to be talked to as if my rights do not matter. I constantly took solace in one of my favorite quotes from Orwell's 1984:

"Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad." I still hear people say things like, "He will come around; he'll find his faith." This was true. On April 8, 1996, when I heard the group was going to be allowed to meet, I found the faith that I had lost some time before--my faith in humanity and what it can accomplish.

 

Freethought Club Forms Despite Stonewalling By Principal

Despite a principal's vow that "There will be no Freethinker's Club at Pelham High School," an Alabama high school senior has succeeded in forming an alternative to a Christian club dominating the public school.

 

Several months ago, Adam Butler distributed an invitation to his student body to join "an atheist/agnostic/humanist group" in response to the Christian "First Priority" club.

"First Priority is allowed to meet and worship on campus, place signs in hallways, announce upcoming events over the intercom, pass out flyers, and sponsor events held during school hours," Adam explains. "In their 'Do the Dot' campaign, students wear colored dots on their clothing, watches, glasses, et cetera, and they are supposed to pray for someone whenever they see these 'prayer dots.' Signs are currently in the hallways saying 'Do the Dot,' which I interpret as saying 'Pray.' "

When Adam tried to get an editorial about his wish to start a nonreligious club in his student newspaper, his piece was refused, so he and two friends handed invitations to join a club to students as they entered the school. Later that day the principal called him into his office from a class and told him he had violated the student code requiring prior approval for on-school distribution.

"I apologized, as I was truthfully unaware that this rule existed. I was then told 'There will be no 'Freethinker's Club at PHS' by the principal."

The principal continually put off Adam's polite request that he reconsider this decision, until Adam concluded his intention was to keep him waiting until graduation would make the issue moot. Adam then called on the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its chapter, the Alabama Freethought Association, for support.

The Foundation called the principal to advise him that he was in violation of the Equal Access Act.

Chapter president Pat Cleveland also contacted the school on Adam's behalf, and alerted the Alabama ACLU to the problem.

On April 8, the principal reversed his decision.

"It has been a battle for months and Adam has handled most of it himself," noted Pat. "Adam is very bright and has a group who will be there to carry on when he graduates in May."

Added Foundation president Anne Gaylor: "If bible clubs in public high schools are going to continue, then we would like to see a freethought group in every high school harboring a religious club. We are grateful to Adam for his persistence in achieving this goal in Pelham, Alabama."

 


Alabama's Conspiracy Of Ignorance Continues

By Adam Butler

Alabama's latest claim to fame is Roy Moore, a Baptist judge who is currently appealing a court order to discontinue prayer before session and to remove the wooden depiction of the Ten Commandments from the wall behind his bench. Since the Alabama Freethought Association was a driving force in having the prayer and Commandments removed in the first place, members were very curious about the "Save the Ten Commandments Rally" held April 12 by Moore's supporters on the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama.

 

After determining that a response was necessary, several members of the Birmingham Freethought Society (a new student freethought group located at the University of Alabama at Birmingham) began to plan a counter-demonstration. In a few days, the decision was final: freethinkers would picket the rally.

As making the signs and organizing carpools did not take very long, the main frustration in the preparation of the event was waiting for it to happen. Calls supposedly were bombarding Montgomery every day by people asking for directions to the rally, some from as far as California. The Christian Coalition, a major sponsor of the event, released their estimate of attendance: 50,000 people. Combined with earlier reports that local militia groups were threatening to "Take care of the ACLU," freethinkers who planned to attend had a lot on their minds.

On the day of the event, several protesters left early to escort patients at a Montgomery abortion clinic. It seems that the clinic thought that some of the "50,000" would arrive early and choose to kill some time by harassing women--and they were right.

While their numbers were not staggering (20-30 people), the antichoice protesters were certainly strange enough to warrant mention. One man informed us, "[Rush Limbaugh] is too left for us . . ." and "When we get in control, we're going to try every one of you, and I will serve as your judge . . . "

At 1 p.m. the event began. Surprised (and happy, I might add) to see that only 3-4,000 people had actually shown up for the event, we had no problem moving to a spot very near the pulpit (oops . . . that was supposed to say "the steps of the capitol building") and directly behind the media. Donning our signs, we immediately gained media attention--and the attention of the police. A large police officer very politely attempted to bluff us into leaving, threatening that he would have our peaceful and quiet protest removed by force. When we asked him why we couldn't stand on public property, he made an annoyed face, mumbled something, and left.

Besides being interviewed by everyone from National Public Radio to The New York Times, we all got a thorough tongue-lashing from nearby loving Christians. Some wanted to debate with us; others just wanted to make sure that we knew we were not welcome. Many just wanted an opportunity to be on television.

Although we were too busy to pay full attention to the event itself, with guests such as Fob James (our illustrious governor and supporter of Moore), Ralph Reed (Executive Director of the Christian Coalition and scary enough to make small children cry), the "Bikers for Jesus," and Judge Moore himself, one can imagine the virtual cornucopia of close-mindedness that existed there. The phrase "Anti-American Civil Liberties Union" was used over and over again, and almost every speaker called for the impeachment of judges who upheld decisions in the ACLU's favor. Confederate flags were everywhere (although I have no idea why), and one man held a sign that said "Burn in Hell," above a list of names including Martin McAfferty, a prominent member of the Montgomery ACLU, and Ellen DeGeneres, the star of ABC's sitcom "Ellen."

The rally was not without humor, though. One man dressed up as Moses and performed a rather comical skit about the writing of the Ten Commandments and a speaker actually quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in an attempt to support Moore's "right" to force his religion on others.

After the rally was over, several members of Operation Rescue, an antiabortion organization, stood at different exits of the parks with signs reading, "Commandment #6: Thou Shalt Not Abortion," above oversized pictures of fetuses. Unable to resist a final jab at the opposition, I asked the man, in reference to his sign, "Are you aware that abortion is not a verb?" The man, puzzled, shrugged his shoulders and turned his attention to the next approaching group.

All in all, the counter-demonstration went very well. Protesters appeared on all local newscasts and in many newspapers. NBC, CBS, CNN, and C-SPAN national news also beamed our message of religious tolerance across the nation. Perhaps others will see that not all Southerners are backwards bigots--just three or four thousand of them.

 


Adam Butler is Director of the Birmingham Freethought Society, a campus group, and communications coordinator for the Alabama Freethought Association, a Foundation chapter.

 

 

Signs Of The Times

By Adam Butler

After living in Alabama for any extended period of time, one is rarely surprised by intolerance. In fact, when one considers my state's history, it would seem that bigotry and ignorance is to be expected--after all, such social evils are thought by many to be our "Southern Heritage."

 

So Alabama activists were not astonished when local religious interests pushed for prayer in public schools. No one was amazed when a politically minded judge tried to bring religion into the courtroom. Likewise, it certainly was not a shock to see a nativity scene erected on our taxpayer-funded state capitol grounds.

On December 17, 1997, several private Christian schools jointly hosted a program on the steps of the state capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama. The program, which, except for the venue, seemed innocent enough, began with a student nativity play and the singing of a few Christmas carols. The real motive of the program, however, was revealed when center stage was given to various Alabama church/ state integrationists who condemned a recent ruling against prayer in public schools by Alabama Judge Ira DeMent.

The event continued with a few words from Alabama's governor, Fob "How the Heck Do I Keep Getting Elected" James, who, as usual, mesmerized everyone with his eloquent prose and unmatched understanding of constitutional law.

When the politicians finally tired of hearing themselves talk, the program concluded and the students climbed aboard their respective buses to go back to school, leaving behind a large lean-to which had served as the manger in the nativity play.

One could almost hear the cry of the baby Jesus: "Wait everybody--you forgot my house!" But the manger had not been forgotten. Just as many religious people believe, a "master plan" was at work.

Local ministers had decided to leave the structure, which was approximately 12 feet wide and 6 feet high, next to the capitol steps. They planned to return later in the week and populate the scene with traditional nativity figurines.

Upon hearing of this blatant church/state separation infraction, other Alabama Freethought Association members and I began making calls to the Governor's office, the capitol police department, and the historical commission (which oversees the use of capitol property). After several hours of asking questions, we were told that the manger scene was not a breach of church/state separation because the area surrounding the capitol steps is a "public forum" available to anyone. Further, any organization that wished to place a display in this area would be given equal access.

In response to our complaints, we had been offered a chance to create our own display. In good conscience, good Southerners that we are, how could we refuse this hospitality?

We didn't have to look far for an idea--the Freedom From Religion Foundation had already posted a sign in Wisconsin for a similar reason. We decided to put our own sign next to the nativity scene, repeating what the Foundation had stated in the Madison capitol building: "There are no gods, no devils, no heaven, or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." (Quote from Anne Nicol Gaylor.)

On Friday, two days after the children's program had taken place, AFA members Pat Cleveland, Roger Cleveland, Amanda Faulkenberry, Carol Faulkenberry, Bill McCormick, Lamar Stover, and I made a pilgrimage to the Montgomery capitol, where we held a press conference and placed our sign.

As we departed from the state capitol, our minds were occupied with thoughts of the display we left behind. It was a fearless beacon of freedom and equality, a blatant representation of tolerance and understanding, and it demanded thought and reason from those that read it. Needless to say, it never had a chance. That night, after it had been on display for less than eleven hours, an unknown individual or group of individuals stole our sign under cover of darkness. He, she, or they were never apprehended.

But the thief or thieves hadn't counted on the AFA's annual Winter Solstice celebration. Freethinkers from all over Alabama had come to Lake Hypatia to celebrate--little did they know they would be put to work! On the following Sunday morning, we had a much larger and rugged new sign which read: "Freedom of Religion Includes Freedom from Religion." Catchy, huh?

We placed our 8x6 foot sign next to the capitol steps thinking, "Only a moron would try to steal this one!" The moron in question came that very night and our sign was attacked again. But unlike the time before, a suspect was caught by police.

Twenty-four-year-old Andrew P. Sanders was arrested by capitol police for allegedly attempting to destroy the display. It would seem the sign was much larger than the vandal had anticipated, so the plan was to destroy it rather than steal it. Mr. Sanders is charged with criminal mischief, a third-degree misdemeanor punishable by three months in jail and/or up to a $1000 fine. Released on $200 bond, Sanders awaits his trial, slated for March of 1998.

After two crimes had taken place on capitol grounds, one would expect the governor to make a comment on the matter. For some time after the placing of our sign, its theft, and its replacement's vandalism, James refrained from making a comment, eventually emerging from his seclusion to utter the following statement of unbridled poetry: "I just don't understand why anyone would protest a nativity scene at Christmas!" With remarks such as this in mind, I sometimes wonder if Governor James' mother still dresses him in the morning.

Thanks to the capitol police's work, Roger Cleveland's craftsmanship, and a little bit of luck, the sign was not beyond repair. With a hammer and a few nails, our display was as good as new and remained that way until it was taken down by the AFA on December 26. During that time, AFA representatives took part in interviews with local and national media, eventually spreading our story to much of the United States. Alabama activists could be found on television shows, newspapers, and talk radio shows as far away as Sacramento. The AFA was bombarded with phone calls, faxes, and emails and our web page received a total of more than 300 hits in the month of December.

Ministers who took part in this year's fiasco have recently stated that next year's children's program and nativity scene will be "even larger" and "planning will begin much sooner." This certainly sounds like a good idea to me! Last December, the AFA was not prepared for what happened and had only a short amount of time in which to react. Now that we know what is coming, we can start making plans! I wonder how much it costs to have "Religion is All Bunk" written in smoke by an airplane--and where did I put that 50-foot-tall statue of Robert Ingersoll?

Although I sincerely wish Alabama was a haven for religious freedom and progressive thought, you can't blame me for having fun while it's not!

Adam Butler is a member of the Foundation and its chapter, the Alabama Freethought Association, and directs a college freethought group.

Photos by Brent Nicastro

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