Outreach & Events - Freedom From Religion Foundation
Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sincerely congratulates the 16 college-bound high school seniors who won this year's FFRF essay competition. FFRF, an educational state/church watchdog that has more than 21,000 members nationwide, has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994 and graduate students since 2010.

Seniors were asked to describe “A moment when you stood up for freethought/secularism” in 500-700 words. There were six top awards, and 10 honorable mentions awarded this year.

The winners are listed below, including the college or university they’ll be attending in the fall.

First Place: Delaney Gold-Diamond, 18, University of Chicago ($3,000)
Second Place: Julianna Evans, 18, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University ($2,000)
Third Place: Philip Kaltman, 17, Georgia Institute of Technology ($1,000)
Fourth Place: Harrison Horwitz, 17, University of California-Berkeley ($750)
Fifth Place: Kali Richardson, 18, University of Arizona ($500)
Sixth Place: Fallon Rowe, 17, Utah State University ($400)

Honorable Mentions each ($200):

Adam Bivens, 18, Pennsylvania State University
Erin Camia, 18, Case Western Reserve University (Ohio) 
Aífe Ní Chochlain, 18, University of Pittsburgh
Jayne M. Cosh, 18, State University of New York at New Paltz
Sam Davidson, 18, Northwestern University 
Alida Markgraf, 18, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
Ryan Muskopf, 17, Rochester Institute of Technology (N.Y.)
Travis Northern, 17, University of Wisconsin-Parkside 
Pranit Singh, 18, Creighton University (Neb.) 
Tara Thankachan, 18, University of Texas at Austin

"We consider our scholarships for freethinking students to be among FFRF's most important investments in the future of freethought,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "There are thousands of scholarships for religious students, and hardly any rewarding critical thinking and the use of reason in forming an opinion about religion."

The winning essays will appear in the September issue of Freethought Today, FFRF's newspaper.

Soon to be announced: FFRF's selection of winners of its college essay competition and its graduate student essay competition.

The high school contest is named for William J. Schultz, a Wisconsin member who died at 57, was a chemical engineer and cared deeply about FFRF’s work. FFRF also thanks Dean and Dorea Schramm in Florida for providing a $100 bonus to winning students who are members of a secular student club or the Secular Student Alliance. The total of $10,250 reflects bonuses.

1maxnielsonMax Nielson spoke May 3 at the Freedom From Religion in the Bible Belt conference sponsored by FFRF in conjunction with its chapter, the Triangle Freethought Society, in Raleigh, N.C. Max had previously received a student activist award at FFRF’s 2012 annual convention in Portland, Ore.

That year he became lead plaintiff in FFRF’s federal lawsuit to stop graduation prayers in his school district. The issue is largely resolved, but FFRF, Max and two other plaintiffs (Dakota McMillan and Jacob Zupon) are still challenging prayer by their school board.

Max received a second honor in Raleigh, the Allen P. Wilkinson Student Activist Award of $1,000, generously endowed by FFRF member Allen P. Wilkinson. He asked that it go to the student who “best exemplifies qualities of FFRF and dares to speak up and engage in enlightening high school students and others in the community.”

(Photo: Jacob Zupon and Dakota McMillan (with Max Nielson, center) received FFRF Thomas Jefferson Student Activist Awards of $2,000 this spring for serving, with Max, as the all-essential plaintiffs in an FFRF lawsuit. The ongoing federal lawsuit challenges graduation prayers and school board prayers in their South Carolina school district. The $1,000 awards were endowed by Len and Karen Eisenberg, FFRF members, with additional funding via the Cliff Richards Memorial Student Activist Award, recognizing Jacob and Dakota’s special contributions. The students enabled the lawsuit to go forward after Max graduated.)

‘One of the most profoundly impactful moments of my life.’

 

By Max Nielson

I was raised secular with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Columbia, S.C. So when I was confronted with the issue of school prayer at my high school, I didn’t really know what to do at first. I didn’t know that I could do anything until I found out that a similar issue had already been settled with help from FFRF in my state through the complaint of Harrison Hopkins.

District 5, where I lived, had a policy on the books that a majority of graduating seniors would vote on whether or not to have a prayer at graduation. It is kind of ridiculous. Rights are not to be voted on. And every part of that graduation prayer ceremony process was facilitated by school officials. It was a clear violation of church and state across the board.

Since I last spoke at the FFRF convention about my case, I’ve gone on to found the Secular Student Alliance at the College of Charleston and interned in D.C. with the Secular Coalition for America. I began work as their social media specialist, in which I have helped launch Openly Secular, which has been a lot of fun. This year I continued to lead the Secular Student Alliance in Charleston.

This summer I am interning with the Center for Inquiry in Buffalo, N.Y.

The opportunity FFRF has given me to become involved with this movement I never even knew existed has probably been one of the most profoundly impactful moments of my life. I am very grateful for the opportunity. But my co-plaintiff, Dakota, is still in high school. Dakota and my other co-plaintiff, Jacob, having just graduated, didn’t have all of those opportunities.

Something that stands out since I last spoke was that Dakota was handed a note by one of her friends, who said — I can quote directly from it — he was discussing the issue of the lawsuit with his mother. He was basically given the ultimatum of agreeing that there should be a graduation prayer or not living in the household. It was that stark.

The way Dakota got this note was that she was wondering why this friend suddenly had stopped talking to her. It is horrifying. It is a scary thing to have happen to her.

I went through my deposition with the attorneys. The first half of it was very intense. They were asking all sorts of questions about my history with the Boy Scouts of America or any time I would have encountered public prayer of any sort.

It relaxed after Aaron, my fantastic lawyer, cut in and informed them I am only suing for nominal damages. Even the lawyers on the other side understand that the school prayer issue is pretty much settled.

Since then, as mentioned, the case has grown to encompass the school board prayers, and at those events they oftentimes have pastors come in from neighboring churches. And there are events at the school board meetings where students are invited and actively attend. I think on that issue we will see some change.

As Annie Laurie mentioned, they have changed the school policy from voting on graduation prayer to directly parroting the South Carolina Student-led Messages Act. Which I am OK with. It basically says the school can appoint a student speaker, and then they are done. That is it. They do not have any influence on what that speaker says. If that speaker wants to pray, that is within the purview of their free speech. I am much more comfortable with that than a specifically sponsored graduation prayer event.

I am happy to see how far this has come, and I am very grateful for this award and the opportunities FFRF has given me. Thank you.

kelvinmanjarrezFFRF is pleased to announce that it has awarded a $1,000 scholarship to Kelvin Manjarrez, a graduate from Gardena High School, Calif., who will be attending El Camino College in conjunction with Black Skeptics Los Angeles’ 2014 First in the Family Humanist Scholarships.

Kelvin has been a volunteer for Reading Partners Los Angeles and a translator in the 2014 primary election. He identifies as an atheist and aspires to be an English professor. “I have always been passionate about our educational system. A wise man once said that: ‘Humanity’s greatest fear is the unknown,’ “ Kelvin wrote in his essay. “This accounts for contrived religions of all sorts, a simple explanation to the unexplained.

“Citizens who are better educated can better distinguish between right and wrong. This, in turn, generates understanding and unity amongst different groups of people who would have otherwise segregated, fought and killed one another. It is of no coincidence that some of the brightest minds in history have been social activists as well as advocates for a better pedagogical system: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson, just to name a few.”

The BSLA scholarships focus on outstanding South Los Angeles students who are undocumented, in foster care, homeless, LGBT or atheist youth. BSLA is the first atheist organization to specifically address college pipelining for youth of color.

“If current prison pipelining trends persist the Education Trust estimates that only one of every 20 African American kindergartners will graduate from a four-year California university in the next decade,” noted BSLA activist Sikivu Hutchinson.

“We’re delighted to be partnering with BSLA on such a worthwhile and needed endeavor, and are impressed with Kelvin’s essay and aspirations,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

FFRF first launched a student scholarship essay competition shortly after it began as a national group in 1978. FFRF now offers three contests: one for college-bound high school seniors, one for ongoing college students and a third for graduate students and/or students age 25-30. Last year FFRF awarded over $34,000 in essay scholarships to a diverse range of students.

FFRF also offers student and youth activist awards, several endowed by generous individual FFRF members. This year so far, FFRF has already awarded $7,000 to secular student activists.

BSLA’s other scholars this year are: Jamion Allen, Hugo Cervantes, Elizabeth Hernandez and Tiare Hilland. They received $500-1,000 scholarships toward their college expenses.

benkaleiwilsonFFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor introduced Kalei and Ben Wilson at the Freedom From Religion in the Bible Belt conference in Raleigh, N.C., on May 2.

Kalei is one of our younger student activist awardees, but we’ve actually had honorees as young as 11. Kalei is 15. She and her brother Ben were thwarted in trying to start a freethought club at their high school in a smaller town in North Carolina. Kalei is receiving the memorial that I started in honor of my father, who was the principal volunteer for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He died three years ago. It’s called the Paul J. Gaylor Memorial Award of $1,000. He would have been very touched by her plight.

Ben, who started this challenge at the school, is 17. He’s going to say a few words. He tried to start a secular club during the fall semester, then he moved on to community school. He is the debut recipient of the Cliff Richards Memorial Student Activist Award of $1,000. You’re going to be hearing about this award because one of our members who got ill very abruptly with stage 4 cancer called me up and said he wanted a bequest to go to the perpetuation of our student activist awards.

We have received a $140,000 in his name this spring for these awards. He was very excited about the activism of younger people and freethinkers. He was from Wisconsin, ended up in Washington state, where he made use of the death with dignity law. He would have been very, very impressed with Ben Wilson.

Speech at Raleigh Convention - By Ben Wilson

Wow! Well, it started out at my first year at the school, a big bible belt school, bunch of country people, Christians. We wanted to start a club because I knew a couple people who weren’t “out” atheists but were not religious. So I started talking the club up, talked to the Secular Student Alliance, got all the paperwork completed and went into the principal. She actually told me “no” — at first. She said it was because they didn’t want an atheist group in the schools. I came back to her with the law that said if she had Christian groups, she’s going to let me have a secular group.

She then postponed our meeting for two weeks, I guess hoping I’d forget about it. Postponed it for two weeks — not even researching about what the club was about, which she promised she would do.

I came in again and was like, “Hey, I need to get moving on this.” She goes, “Oh, I haven’t even looked it up.” I was like, “Well, let’s do that now.” And so we looked it up. She reads the definition of atheist from Wikipedia, I think, and goes, “I think this a satanist group.”

I was — completely confused! “I think you’ve got the wrong definition of atheism. Theists are known as believers, and atheists are nonbelievers.”
So we went on about that. She ended up saying stuff like, “It’s like if you’re gay, you go to Asheville and not stay here.” So confused.

Then we took it to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They helped us out a lot, but then I ended up getting out of school, going to Haywood Community College, and then Kalei took over. She ended up getting the harsh end of the deal because a lot of kids turned on us. Friends just said we’re not going to be your friends anymore. People destroyed her projects at schools with bibles.

But, thank y’all. I love being up here, I love you y’all. This is awesome. It’s nice to have a community now. Better than Christians.

joshuaflashmanFFRF has awarded Josh a $1,000 Cliff Richards Memorial Student Activist Award. He was FFRF’s complainant in Orange County, Fla.

Student stands up for right to sit

My name is Joshua Flashman and I am 14 years old. This past year while in the eighth grade at Southwest Middle School in Orlando, Fla., I fought for the right of our students to sit during the Pledge of Allegiance.

Our school had a policy of forcing students to stand and recite the pledge, regardless of a person’s beliefs. When I tried explaining that I believed I was allowed to sit quietly during the pledge, I got in trouble with the deans. I worked with FFRF to get this to be allowed. The school now allows students to sit quietly during the pledge and has posted a notice saying so.

Even after we were finally allowed to sit during the pledge, I still faced many repercussions from the deans and principal. They were not happy that I made them change. But it was worth it because I knew I was helping other students who would have been too scared to stand up for their rights and beliefs.
Next year at my new high school, I am creating a Secular Student Alliance club with a dedication and determination to advance secular rights. I expect to run into some trouble and bullying, but I feel this is important and will continue to press on.

My main interests are in computers, and I am also joining the high school ROTC program in High School. I hope to go to college (MIT would be my choice) to study computer programming so I can join the military as an information warfare officer.

Two concerned service members separately contacted FFRF earlier this year to report finding Christian bibles in every Navy-operated hotel room in which they had stayed during decades of service. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is the country’s largest association of atheists and agnostics, with over 21,000 members nationwide. FFRF works to defend the constitutional principle of separation between the government and religion and to represent the views of nonbelievers. 

Because over 24% of FFRF’s members are active duty military or veterans — and because over 23% of military personnel identify as atheists, agnostics, or have no religious affiliation — FFRF sent a letter on March 12, 2014 to the Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM). FFRF noted that Navy-run lodges are showing favoritism to Christianity over all other religions and non-religion by placing bibles in hotel rooms. 

On June 19, 2014, NEXCOM issued a directive stating that the “Navy Lodge General Manager should advise the Installation Commanding Officer of our intention to work through the chaplain’s office to determine what installation policy is and the method to remove religious material currently in guest rooms.” The directive indicated that the action “is to be completed by 1 September 2014.” 

”We’re pleased that NEXCOM has taken seriously its constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion as a representative of our federal government. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment requires the government not to play favorites when it comes to religious or nonreligious beliefs. By removing bibles from Navy-run lodges, the Navy has taken a step to ensure that it is not sending the impermissible message that Christians are favored over guests with other religious beliefs or over those guests with no religion,” noted FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover, who worked on the violation. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has long advocated that nonreligious consumers ask for “bible-free rooms” at private motels and hotels as a consumer request. 

“We shouldn’t have to pay high prices to be proselytized in the privacy of our own hotel or motel room. We shouldn’t have to open our bedside table to find in it a so-called ‘holy book’ which glorifies violence and discrimination against nonbelievers, women, gays and children,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. While private hotels may choose to succumb to the lobbying of The Gideon Society, the U.S. government has an obligation to ensure secular accommodations that do not give the appearance of governmental endorsement of religion, Barker added. 

CONTACT

Please voice your support for the Navy’s decision, to counter action alerts by the Christian Right against this decision: 

Michael Bockelman 
Director, Navy Lodge Program 
Navy Exchange Service Command
 3280 Virginia Beach Boulevard 
Virginia Beach, VA 23452-5724 

TALKING POINTS

Be sure to identify any relationship you may have to the Navy or military. Use your own words or feel free to copy any part of the the message text below: 

Dear Director Bockelman, 

[I am an active member/veteran of the U.S. military / a family member of a U.S. military service member and] I am writing to thank you for your correct decision to remove Christian bibles from all Navy Lodge guest rooms. As an atheist/nonbeliever, I’m part of the one in five U.S. adult citizens who is nonreligious — the fastest growing segment of the population by religious identification. I’m deeply offended when I go into a hotel room and find a bible there, which sends a message that I need to be converted or am somehow the “wrong” religion. Today nonbelievers make up about a quarter of active military personnel. So I know how “atheists in foxholes” would feel in encountering someone else’s “holy book” in what should be secular military accommodations. Military service is, in part, about defending the secular constitutional principles on which this country was founded. The separation between government and religion is one of those key principles that has allowed our country to thrive. Thank you for ensuring secular accommodations, which guarantees that some military personnel are not made to feel like “outsiders” because they are non-Christians or non-believers. Thank you for showing me that the Navy is willing to stand by that principle, not because it is a politically popular thing to do, but because it is the only appropriate course of action.

Two concerned service members separately contacted FFRF earlier this year to report finding Christian bibles in every Navy-operated hotel room in which they had stayed during decades of service. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is the country’s largest association of atheists and agnostics, with over 21,000 members nationwide. FFRF works to defend the constitutional principle of separation between the government and religion and to represent the views of nonbelievers. 

Because over 24% of FFRF’s members are active duty military or veterans — and because over 23% of military personnel identify as atheists, agnostics, or have no religious affiliation — FFRF sent a letter on March 12, 2014 to the Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM). FFRF noted that Navy-run lodges are showing favoritism to Christianity over all other religions and non-religion by placing bibles in hotel rooms. 

On June 19, 2014, NEXCOM issued a directive stating that the “Navy Lodge General Manager should advise the Installation Commanding Officer of our intention to work through the chaplain’s office to determine what installation policy is and the method to remove religious material currently in guest rooms.” The directive indicated that the action “is to be completed by 1 September 2014.” 

”We’re pleased that NEXCOM has taken seriously its constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion as a representative of our federal government. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment requires the government not to play favorites when it comes to religious or nonreligious beliefs. By removing bibles from Navy-run lodges, the Navy has taken a step to ensure that it is not sending the impermissible message that Christians are favored over guests with other religious beliefs or over those guests with no religion,” noted FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover, who worked on the violation. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has long advocated that nonreligious consumers ask for “bible-free rooms” at private motels and hotels as a consumer request. 

“We shouldn’t have to pay high prices to be proselytized in the privacy of our own hotel or motel room. We shouldn’t have to open our bedside table to find in it a so-called ‘holy book’ which glorifies violence and discrimination against nonbelievers, women, gays and children,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. While private hotels may choose to succumb to the lobbying of The Gideon Society, the U.S. government has an obligation to ensure secular accommodations that do not give the appearance of governmental endorsement of religion, Barker added. 

FFRF had a substantive victory last week, when the owner of a North Carolina diner that offered a 15% “praying in public” discount to diners dropped the discriminatory offer.

News stories went viral, prompting many complaints about the discount to FFRF. Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent Mary Haglund a letter explaining the meaning of the Civil Rights Act and noting, “Mary’s Gourmet Diner may not lawfully offer a discount only to customers who pray. Any promotions must be available to all customers regardless of religious preference or practice on a non-discriminatory basis.”

Since the owner announced she was dropping the promotion last week, the Christian Right noise machine went into full gear. Several online news stories are irresponsibly claiming without documentation that there were “threats” of violence, and are trying to smear FFRF and atheists.

Haglund had defended the discount saying she approves of people being “thankful . . . It’s just an attitude of gratitude.” So please let her know how grateful you are that she is honoring the Civil Rights Act! The Civil Rights Act, which is enjoying its 50th anniversary this year, requires “the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation . . . without discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion, or national origin.” Without the Civil Rights Act, a black person could be denied the right to buy groceries or a house. An ill atheist could be turned away by a pharmacist. The Civil Rights Act does not allow a restaurant to offer believers a 15% discount at the expense of nonbelievers and is an integral part of America’s guaranteed equality under the law.

Mainstream media is also getting into the act, such as this column by Fayette Observer writer Myron Pitts, “What’s wrong with prayer,” which tries to frame this as “atheists just don’t like to see people pray.” FFRF’s complaint isn’t about diners praying; it’s about a category of diners receiving a financial reward from the restaurant for their religious beliefs, which is a violation of the Civil Rights Act. By the way, you might like to politely email Myron Pitts, after reading his column, to respond at .

Many blog posts, online comments, etc. have pointed to other discounts at restaurants and other places of public accommodation, as proof that restaurant owners can discriminate between customers in any way they like.  Popular examples of such discounts include senior citizen discounts, veterans/military discounts, 'kids eat free' deals, and 'ladies' nights' promotions. If these discounts are OK, why isn't a discount given to religious customers?

FFRF’s Liz Cavell explains why: It’s simple. These discounts do not violate Title II of the Civil Rights Act because they do not distinguish between customers on the basis of religion, race, color, or national origin.  (Although in the case of ladies' nights, discounts may violate certain states' civil rights statutes, if those statutes include sex or gender as a protected class. The federal Civil Rights Act does not.) Title II of the Civil Rights Act clearly explains what types of establishments it regulates, and what is prohibited.

While they enjoy freedom to run their business as they see fit, private restaurant owners are no stranger to government regulations — they must comply with a myriad of regulations of everything from food storage and cleanliness to employee safety and liquor licensing.

contact

Please go to Mary’s Gourmet Diner Facebook page and post a grateful message, identifying yourself as an atheist or nonbeliever. Thank her for honoring the Civil Rights Act and for stopping a discriminatory promotion that rewards believers as opposed to nonbelievers. It is important that this message truly be friendly, grateful and openly “thankful” (no lectures!) — so that the Christian Right cannot continue to baselessly smear atheists as “threatening” the restaurant.

facebook

Using social network is preferred. If you do not use Facebook, the restaurant owner includes her email address at the restaurant’s website. If you email a message, please sign your name and address so your message is not perceived as anonymous. Use a clear subject heading, such as “'Praise Mary' for dropping illegal prayer promotion” or “Thank you for obeying the law and honoring all diners,” etc.

Mary Haglund's email: 

sample talking points

(You can cut and paste or vary the language to put it in your own words.)

Dear Ms. Haglund,

Thank you so much for doing the right thing and dropping the “praying in public” promotion, which discriminates against me and the one in five U.S. adults who is nonreligious. Atheists and nonbelievers also feel gratitude. As a minority, we are at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to social acceptance and are often unfairly stereotyped and stigmatized. So I’m thankful for your decision to honor the Civil Rights Act and to treat all customers, regardless of their religion or lack of religion, the same. When I’m next in your area, I will plan to drop by and give you some business!

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a motion Aug. 7 for summary judgment in its suit against a South Carolina school district for sanctioning graduation prayers and for opening school board meetings with prayer.

The original focus of the lawsuit was on graduation prayers. FFRF and one of its South Carolina members filed suit on May 30, 2012, against School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties challenging a district graduation prayer policy. The policy allowed prayer by a vote of the graduating class. Matthew Nielson, an Irmo High School senior at the time, was the lead plaintiff.

Two other Irmo High students joined the suit June 11, 2012. FFRF and the students, represented by local counsel Aaron Kozloski, asked the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Columbia Division, to declare the district's policy null and void, enjoin it from further school-sponsored graduation prayers and to award damages, costs and attorney fees.

On Nov. 16, 2012, the plaintiffs amended the suit to also challenge prayers before Board of Trustees' meetings.

The district and the plaintiffs subsequently settled the graduation prayer issue after the district rescinded its prayer policy in August 2013 and paid the plaintiffs’ attorney fees. The new policy allows “student-led messages” that are not sponsored or approved by the district, in accordance with the state's Student-led Messages Act. There was no graduation prayer in 2013.

The court will decide whether to also end prayers at school board meetings. The plaintiffs' summary judgment motion and memorandum says that because there are no material disputes of fact in the case, the law entitles them to judgment on the grounds that the board's opening prayers violate the Establishment Clause. FFRF contends that "the legislative prayer exception set forth in Marsh v. Chambers is inapplicable to school board prayers."

"A school board is not the same as a state legislature or a city council," the motion states. "Rather, it is by design and activity created solely for the governance and operation of a public school system. As such, school board prayers are scrutinized for constitutionality under tradition Establishment Clause jurisprudence."

The plaintiffs argue that the standards set by Lemon v. Kurtzman and numerous school cases should apply. 

"More than half a century of strong rulings by the Supreme Court prohibit proselytizing and devotionals in our public schools," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

"School board members should be setting a tone of respect for the law and the rights of conscience of students," she said.

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

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

 

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