On May 13, a public school district in Muldrow, Okla., confirmed it had permanently removed Ten Commandments plaques posted in classrooms. The whistleblower was 16-year-old student Gage Pulliam, who is the recipient of FFRF’s new “Strong Backbone Student Activist Award,” a cash scholarship of $1,000.
After Gage contacted FFRF about this major constitutional violation, FFRF sent a letter demanding they be taken down. FFRF did not identify the complainant, following its usual policy to protect identities. But after students began fingering peers they suspected of contacting FFRF, Gage bravely came forward.
He and his family subsequently faced a strong backlash from the overwhelmingly Christian community of about 3,500 residents, including bullying of his younger sister and threats against him by other students. He and his family attended a school board meeting packed with angry Ten Commandments supporters.
“I want people to know this isn’t me trying to attack religion,” Gage told a TV reporter. “This is my trying to create an environment for kids where they can feel equal.”
A New York FFRF member who prefers not to be named endowed the “Strong Backbone” award. The donor sent the $1,000 contribution as his own “80th birthday present,” specifying the award should go to a high school student who has “showed uncommon strength in standing up for his or her freethought sentiments.”
FFRF offers several other annual youth awards to recognize student activism.
I was born in the Arkansas/Oklahoma region and have lived there all my life. My parents took me to church frequently when I was small, but I began questioning my faith when I was about 9.
I was allowed to ask questions and seek out answers, encouraged to think for myself and make my own decisions, and I am supported in what I choose. I now consider myself an open atheist and a firm supporter of equality for all people. I hope to continue fighting for the rights of all people and encourage others to do the same.
In the eighth grade I moved to Muldrow. I had noticed the Ten Commandments immediately, but was still very secretive about my atheism. I always had a problem with displaying them because it showed complete disregard for the law.
It wasn’t until recently that I got the courage to say something. I wanted to remain anonymous, but after fingers were pointed and threats were made to the wrong people, I told people it was me.
The community’s reaction was terrible. The kids at school no longer spoke to me, and people who used to be my friends just frowned when I looked their way. All anyone would do was point and stare at me like I was a monster.
People asked my friends how they could laugh or smile around me. I received several threats from kids but always indirectly. As a result, these students have made my last days as a junior the worst of my life.
The parents were different in that they would look at me with disgust and not even try to hide it. The students did not scare me very much, but the parents scared me more than I have ever been scared in my life.
At a school board meeting which my family attended, my father overheard a man sitting behind me say he would like to walk up and punch me in the face. While I was doing a television interview, I could barely concentrate because of the mass of people staring at me.
There has been an overwhelming amount of support from people around the world, and that support is what helped me through this entire ordeal. The hate mail has all been the same — they tell me I am going to hell and ask me if I am happy about what I’ve done.
My close friends have all supported me and have told me that even though they don’t believe the way I do, they support me in what I did.
I am proud of what I did, no matter how many people hate me. The only thing I want is for people in this world to all be treated equally. And no matter if it takes my entire life, I will continue to do what is necessary to achieve that goal.
Catch an interview with Gage on Freethought Radio, ffrf.org/news/radio/shows, May 25, 2013.