The Freedom From Religion Foundation has inaugurated two annual $1,000 student activist awards, one in memory of Catherine Fahringer, the other endowed by a generous West Coast couple. Although FFRF had already offered three awards so far in 2011, FFRF decided to name Damon Fowler, a graduating senior from Bastrop, La., as its fourth 2011 student activist.
Other 2011 activist recipients are Sarah McNair, of Virginia, for speaking out against Ten Commandments in Giles County schools; Duncan Henderson, 15, whose school district refuses to let him have a freethought club in Auburn, Ala.; and graduating senior Harrison Hopkins, who protested prayer at his high school graduation in Laurens, S.C. Harrison will accept his award at FFRF’s annual convention in Hartford., Conn., in October.
Damon received a $1,000 cash scholarship in memory of Catherine Fahringer for protesting and stopping school-initiated prayer at his high school commencement. He writes about why he protested the prayer, and what happened when he did.
For a while, I kept my atheism a secret from everyone. Then I came out to my friends, but someone in the family found out and told everyone else. My parents didn’t like it at all, but they soon learned to tolerate it since they couldn’t change my beliefs.
A couple of months later, I noticed that my high school would be praying at the graduation ceremony.
I looked up Louisiana law concerning prayer in public schools and saw all that is allowed is a “brief moment of silent meditation or prayer.” I was already familiar with the Constitution saying that the government cannot endorse any religion.
I put a post on Reddit.com to get a little support, because I knew I wouldn’t get any locally. The Reddit community really gave me the support and motivation I needed.
I immediately contacted the school with an email stating that prayer on school grounds, promoted by the school, violates the Constitution and Louisiana law. The school gave me no response but made the complaint public, causing a big uproar in the community. I was the only open atheist graduating, so many people automatically assumed it was me.
When asked, I didn’t lie, because I saw nothing wrong with what I had done. It was against the law to pray at graduation, and they had been breaking the law for more than a decade.
News spread quickly that I was the one who stopped the prayer. Many members of the community, including my own parents, attended a meeting at a church to protest removing the prayer. My parents barely spoke to me. They disconnected my phone and left me with no way of contacting my older brother, who contacted FFRF on my behalf.
I was unable to attend graduation practice due to threats against me, so the school was going to put me at the back of the line for graduation. Class Night came around, which includes a ceremony for those who acquired merits and scholarships. Though told not to pray, a student prayed anyway, and administrators allowed it. She called for a moment of silence afterward, which seemed like a complete joke to the students. It was followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, during which some of the students emphasized and yelled “under God!”
I felt so alienated from my class, as if they were all against me. It was very embarrassing, but still I pushed on and attended my graduation the next day. Thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, I was placed in my rightful spot in line to graduate. FFRF also asked that there be increased security at graduation, which was provided. But they still prayed at my graduation.
It went better than I expected, aside from one person yelling “Jesus still loves you,” as I walked to get my diploma. I left as soon as I could, but couldn’t go back home. My parents had thrown my belongings outside, obviously kicking me out. I left for Dallas with my sister.
I’ve received a lot of support from across the country and around the world. A blog even started a donation to go toward a scholarship for me. I plan on going to college soon, and I will definitely keep fighting for constitutional rights whenever and wherever they are violated.
I am very grateful for the support I’ve gotten, and I thank everyone who has given even a few seconds out of their day to tell me that I did a good job.
Freethinking graduate is a real class act
Damon Fowler, who graduated May 21 from Bastrop High School, Bastrop, La., is receiving a $1,000 scholarship for his courage in protesting illegal graduation prayer at his commencement. He had emailed his school May 15 to warn them that if prayer stayed on the schedule, he would contact the ACLU.
A local newspaper announced the next day that 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 Quinn.) FFRF sent a letter to the district asking that she be disciplined.
At a May 19 awards ceremony for graduates, a student previously chosen to give the invocation announced a moment of silence, then identified herself as a Christian and prayed to Jesus to loud cheers. FFRF then complained on Damon’s behalf when he was told he would receive his diploma last at graduation.
The school, at FFRF’s request, placed him back in his original place in line 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 graduation, a student subsequently led the entire stadium in the Lord’s Prayer. A follow-up joint letter by FFRF and other groups was sent May 26 to protest the school’s mishandling of this situation.
“We are so impressed with young people who have the guts to stand up to rogue school officials and classmates’ mob mentality to defend the 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.”