Freethought Today · September 2013

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

James S. Schiller Memorial Student Activist Awardees

Gutsy students force school to cancel formal prayer

NC activists

Luis Lucas-Tzun (Right) and Michael Thorpe, seniors at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City, N.C., were successful (with FFRF’s help) in getting their school to remove formal prayer from their graduation program in June.

In recognition of their activism, they will share the James J. Schiller Memorial Student Activist Award, generously endowed as a one-time memorial by FFRF member Susan J. Schiller following the death of her husband, James, in late 2012. James earned a post-master’s at Johns Hopkins University and taught in Atlanta and Baltimore, retiring in Denver.

Luis and Michael will each receive $500. 

FFRF also commends two other Jordan-Matthews students, Shannon Dwyer and Josue Turcios, for their efforts.

By Luis Lucas-Tzun

One day in class, I spoke to a classmate who was complaining that her week hadn’t been so great and how she would be delivering the prayer at graduation. I had attended last year’s graduation, but it was so long ago that I didn’t realize there had been a prayer.

I decided that same day I needed to fight this. I wasn’t sure how to initially, but then I remembered a post on reddit.com/atheism about a boy named Gage Pulliam and how he got the Ten Commandments removed from his school’s classrooms. I reread the article and found that the Freedom From Religion Foundation had been the force that pushed the district to act.

I went on FFRF’s site, filled out the form and waited. I had a reply the next day and on May 23 received a copy of FFRF’s letter to the school board. I showed the letter to my friends, Shannon Dwyer, Michael Thorpe and Josue Turcios. I also showed a few teachers I trusted.

One day, Michael and Josue went to our principal’s office, showed him the letter and asked that he cooperate. He was on board and said he would notify Superintendent Robert Logan, and suggested we voice our concerns at the board meeting that same day. So I called for a group discussion and we decided to write the board, raising our concerns about the illegal prayer.

Ultimately, only Michael and I spoke at the meeting, and soon thereafter FFRF sent another, much more forceful letter. This time the backlash was overt. The local right-wing news ran an article and published our names. The photo in the article was all over Facebook and Twitter, and we became the target of some very heavy and nasty verbal abuse.

The faculty were discussing the issue as well and the division and dissent in the community was clear. Some of my teachers never spoke to me again, nor did some of my peers

My friends and I agreed before the graduation that if students did their own prayer, we would remain composed and indifferent. Sure enough, they did, which was OK since it was of their own accord.

We accomplished what we wanted and we had a great graduation. The only issue that was ever at hand was the legality of a public school supporting a prayer as a part of its graduation ceremony. I can’t possibly describe my gratitude to FFRF for supporting us. The companionship of my three comrades also made the ordeal much more tolerable, and I’m glad that I went through this with them. 

I will be attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study biology. I love music and play guitar, piano, ukulele, sing and write songs. I started a musical group with Shannon, who did a lot of behind-the-scenes work on our graduation prayer. We’re called Shannon and Luis. Maybe find us on Facebook and give us a like!

I also plan on finding a group like the Secular Student Alliance so that I can continue to support separation of church and state.

 

By Michael Thorpe

My interest in the cause began when Luis showed me the first messages of his correspondence with FFRF. I had overlooked the fact that there was a constitutional violation in my own high school but was made aware of it thanks to Luis.

As his correspondence with FFRF continued, I thought, “Wow, this might actually get accomplished.” I only wish we had realized the violation sooner. 

On the day of our baccalaureate service, Luis and I agreed to talk with our principal to see what he could do to help us because up until that day, we had had no help from the school board. We were able to secure the support of our principal by talking to him and also decided speak out at the school board meeting during the public comment section.

That was on a Monday. That Wednesday, things started to heat up. Some students protested at the Chatham County Schools office to gain support to keep the prayer. Social media blew up with statuses and comments showing widespread distaste with the board’s decision to remove prayer.

Also that day, the Chatham News published an article about Luis and me speaking at the meeting. The story ended with “The school board thanked them and no action was taken on the matter.” (The paper is prone to getting things wrong and having bad reporters anyway.) They fanned the flames that were building among community members and classmates.

Even some teachers who valued us as exceptional students turned their backs on us for messing with the order of things. The indirect hatefulness continued over the next few days up through graduation.

Even on graduation day, Superintendent Logan seemed to think that the matter could have been kept quiet, and he still denied having received FFRF’s letter before June 3. [FFRF sent it electronically May 23.] Students and parents prayed at our graduation during what was supposed to be a silent meditation for all. But to the people who wanted to pray out loud, being disrespectful and having their way was more important than being fair.

As time goes on, I will continue to think about this experience as my own realization that one cannot always wait for change to happen. Even if the fearful, ignorant community, the biased media and petty adults are all against you, the struggle to make the right change must be fought by someone. 

I am going to Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., this fall. I don’t know what I want to major in because I would like to keep an open mind for a while. What I hope to gain from my college experience is learning how to make a greater difference in the world and inspire change in places where change is long overdue.

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

 

FFRF privacy statement

AAI-LOGO

FFRF is a member of Atheist Alliance International.