The Freedom From Religion Foundation named Tennesse student Maia Disbrow, 12, its fifth student activist awardee this year for speaking up in favor of halting prayer before the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners in Chattanooga in July.
The issue has been extremely contentious, and two local men have sued the commission in federal court over the prayers and for being ejected from a meeting while addressing the commission.
Maia’s write-up of her experience and a text of her speech follows. Her appearance is also on YouTube (search for Maia Disbrow).
“We are impressed with Maia’s gumption, maturity and dedication to a constitutional principle. Going before government bodies to protest government prayer is something many adults are reluctant to do,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
Maia has received a $1,000 award. FFRF officially offers three student activist awards of $1,000 each annually endowed by kind members: the Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award, the Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award and the Paul J. Gaylor Memorial Student Activist Award. Since both state/church violations and student activism are on the rise, FFRF expects to see increasing numbers of deserving student activists nominated for awards.
Last year, FFRF gave out six $1,000 student awards, all to high school students. This year’s other activist winners were high school students as well. Three of the five are from Tennessee.
FFRF members wishing to create and endow a one-time or annual student activist award in their name, as a memorial, etc., are encouraged to contact FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor at 608/256-8900.
View student winners since 1996 at ffrf.org/outreach/awards/student-activist-awards/.
Maia’s heartfelt speech on prayer:
Good morning. My name is Maia Disbrow, and I am 12 years old. I am a perfectly normal young adult, although some of my friends would beg to differ.
I was present at the meeting at which my dad spoke. The prayer was very rude to me and some of my closest friends, not to mention parts of my family.
My dad did not put me up to this. I came because I care about this and things like it. All through elementary school, I was teased and ridiculed by people who I thought were my friends. Whenever the subject of me being a freethinker came up, I was singled out, by my friends.
You are doing the same thing that they did to me at every meeting you have. Singling me out. Singling out every single person in Hamilton County who is not Christian.
It is not fair for you to pray openly to your God without praying to all the others as well. I believe a moment of silence would accommodate all beliefs, not just one. And after speaking today, I hope I have some friends left at school next year.
Maia writes about bullies
I was sitting right in front when my father spoke at the commission meeting, and also during the prayer beforehand. The prayer was very offensive to me, and when they gave the preacher an award, or present, or whatever they’d like to call it, I almost exploded inside. It made my dad so angry, he was shaking with rage after he sat down from speaking. After we got home that day, a news station called and wanted to interview my dad at our house. They came, did an interview and left.
At some point, one of us joked that I should speak in front of the commission. My dad didn’t push me to do it, we just joked about it. But when I thought about it, I realized that there were some things I’d like to say to them. It took me a while to decide, because even though I go to a middle school for the arts that is supposed to accept everyone, I was worried because during elementary school, I was bullied about my beliefs. Whenever the subject of my religion, or lack thereof, came up, my social status dropped for a few days.
So really, I was worried about further bullying. When I realized that the county commissioners were actually behaving like a bunch of fifth-grade bullies, I sat down and started writing my address to them. I honestly didn’t expect this much attention for a 40-second speech, but I am very thankful for it.
Thank you so much for the scholarship, although it does make me a little depressed that a person can get an award for standing up for basic human rights.
Maia’s father, Steven, writes:
Maia spoke on July 18. I spoke two weeks before that. I took both my kids with me so that they could see how the commission works and get a glimpse at how local government is run.
Maia was born on May 5, 2000, the same day as the supposedly apocalyptic planetary alignment [Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were positioned in line with the Sun]. While her birth didn’t herald the end of civilization, it was a big event for her family.
Her interests include reading (which she was doing at 18 months), writing, acting (currently in rehearsals for a production of “Medea”), singing and taking care of her pets (a dog and two guinea pigs). In the fall, she’ll be entering seventh grade at the Center for Creative Arts, where she studies visual art.
Maia also has a younger brother, Logan, who insisted on being mentioned here at the end, rather than in the bit about the pets.