The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed a lawsuit today (Feb. 6, 2013) on behalf of plaintiffs who seek removal of a portrait of Jesus from Jackson Middle School in Jackson.
FFRF sent an initial letter of complaint Jan. 2 to Jackson City School District Superintendent Phil Howard. Howard is a named defendant, as are the Jackson City Board of Education and the school district.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio on behalf of a child who attends Jackson Middle School and the parents of children who attend school in the district.
The portrait of Jesus Christ is prominently displayed on an entrance wall at the school, where it has been located for some years. The superintendent has stated that “it would take a court order to remove the picture,” according to the complaint.
Dan Barker, FFRF co-president and a former evangelical minister, is very familiar with the painting, having encountered it himself in countless Christian churches. “It boggles the mind that in 2013, a public school superintendent and school board would not understand that a devotional painting of Jesus, called ‘The Head of Christ,’ — identical to millions hanging in churches and Sunday school classrooms around the country — may not be posted at the entrance of a middle school.”
Displaying the portrait violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, the 14th Amendment and Article I, Section 7 of the Ohio Constitution, the suit alleges, and the defendants’ actions "have no legitimate secular purpose, and are motivated by a desire to advance a religious purpose."
Plaintiffs seek removal of the portrait and a permanent injunction barring "any substantially similar display."
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca S. Markert and James L. Hardiman, Jennifer Martinez Atzberger and Michael Honohan of the ACLU of Ohio are plaintiffs' attorneys.
The suit was filed using pseudonyms for the plaintiffs rather than their true identities. A motion has also been filed seeking to maintain plaintiffs' anonymity, along with a protective order barring disclosure of their personal information so that they aren't subject to potential adverse consequences, including harassment and personal threats.
(Read the memorandum for protective order here for the thorough documentation of the historical record of harassment of Establishment Clause plaintiffs and their children.)
The federal lawsuit is in the court of U.S.District Judge Algrnon Marbley, a Clinton appointee. The case number is: 2:13-cv-112.
At FFRF’s national convention in October in Portland, Ore., Len Eisenberg, who with his wife Karen endows FFRF’s Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award, introduced Max Nielson, student plaintiff in FFRF’s ongoing South Carolina lawsuit over a school district policy that sanctions graduation prayer. Max received a $1,000 Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award from FFRF.
Hello, everyone. It’s really great to be among such admirable and wonderful people. Don’t you feel that energy when we’re all in the room together? We’d like to thank Annie Laurie and Dan and all the people at FFRF because, even though we provide a little financial help, they’re the ones who have to talk with Sean Hannity and take a shower afterward. They’re doing all the hard work.
Max Nielson is a pretty amazing person. He’s not only a black belt in karate and an Eagle Scout, he’s earned the equivalent of an international high school diploma. He’s won not one but two board of director seats for secular coalition groups in the Carolinas area, and he’s also the founder and president of the Secular Student Alliance group at his college, the College of Charleston.
He also told me he’s an amateur contortionist. He’s going to turn himself into a human pretzel up on the stage here — or maybe not. He’ll tell you all about his saga with trying to get the school graduation prayer stopped, and how this has been a really transformative event in his life. So will you please welcome, Max Nielson. — Len Eisenberg
Hi Mom. That’s Mom [in audience]. She’s great. So, like they said, I’m Max Nielson. I grew up in South Carolina for the most part.
I was born in Atlanta, moved away when I was 4. Canadian father, rural South Carolinian mother, and so if I say, you know, the “sooth,” or “oot and aboot,” feel free to laugh, just laugh, it’s very comic.
Growing up in South Carolina, you might not think it, but I had a really secular upbringing. I attended the Unitarian Universalist congregation of Columbia. Many times, the pastor when I was going was regularly Mister Reverend Patrick, or something like that. He was a pagan. It wasn’t this idea that “Oh, there’s one true religion.” That was never really introduced to me in any solid way.
As I was going through school, I encountered a lot of people who were very fundamentally religious — like the kind of a goofball kid in seventh grade who rejected the science lesson because he knew Earth was 6,000 years old. And I was like “Weird! What are you doing?!”
That kind of got me interested, so I started studying counter-apologetics through middle school, and that was fun. I really enjoyed getting to rationalize things that were not rational.
Another big part of my youth was Boy Scouts of America. I stayed in the closet long enough to get the Eagle Scout. That was good, but kind of ironic. My entire troop knew I was an atheist, but they went ahead and made me chaplain’s aide. So, yeah, I can sympathize with Dan, I’ve led a few prayers, too.
High school was great. No it wasn’t. But in ninth grade I was in Irmo, South Carolina, and the Pastafarians at USC just brought in a pretty amazing speaker, Richard Dawkins. I got to see him in ninth grade, and I was young and didn’t know anything. I kind of formulated this idea, like “Oh hey, I should probably be a scientist, so that I can help humanity.” Another thing that happened early in high school is someone wanted to form a Gay-Straight Alliance, and the principal resigned over it. He walked out. He retired early because he didn’t want to be the principal at a school with a Gay-Straight Alliance. That was also weird.
Later in high school, I got into the international baccalaureate program. It’s a smaller program at most high schools, and especially mine, so I was around 30 of my really close friends, and in the classroom, day to day, religion just stopped being a topic. I was that mildly articulate atheist kid who would shoot down your argument, and that was fun, but it never came up
After I qualified for the international baccalaureate diploma, I was pretty much the paragon of post-high school apathy. I did not care about anything, and it was fantastic! But 10 days before graduation [at which Christian prayer would be recited because a majority of seniors voted to have prayer], my good friend Kelly Freeman linked me to an interview with Harrison Hopkins on a podcast called “A Matter of Doubt.”
He challenged almost the exact same policy at his high school in Lawrence County, S.C. It was 10 days before graduation, but I knew I had to do something, because I could do something, and that made all the difference. Kelly walked me through it.
She basically pointed me at the most important button on any activist website ever: Contact Us. So I did, and FFRF got back to me very fast, either that same day or the next day. Through that, I scheduled meetings through the principal, and FFRF sent legal letters to the school district to back me up.
Mom: ‘Yeah, go ahead’
Right about this time, my mom comes home from school. She’s a teacher at that school. Yeah, she’s been teaching English at Irmo High School for seven years. So, she gets into the computer room, and I’m just covered in sweat, out of my mind, deliriously excited that I can fight injustice as I saw it. She can tell I’m visibly disturbed, and I lock eyes with her, and I’m, “Mom — can I stir shit up?”
And she’s like, “Yeah, go ahead,” which was amazing. She had my back, she was with me. She had always felt uncomfortable with the public prayers they had at graduation.
I met twice with my principal, Mr. Weinkle. The first time, he just wanted to make sure I wasn’t crazy. He made this really bizarre reference, looking down and holding his belt, “I’m from a town in North Carolina. I totally see where you’re coming from with this, it’s a pretty a metropolitan area, but I can’t help you because this is the bible belt.” That was shocking.
It seemed like he understood the issue. He understood why it was wrong but still wasn’t willing to help because of where we were [in the bible belt]. To me, that just wasn’t acceptable. So I contacted the superintendent and FFRF got me an amazing lawyer, Aaron Kozloski. It was great to have Aaron on the case; he’s a brilliant guy. It’s been really fun working with him.
The second time I met with my principal, he handed me the district policy. What it basically said was they could have prayer if it was nonsectarian and nonproselytizing. Nonproselytizing pub-
lic prayer, folks; you heard it here first.
Leading up to meeting with my superintendent, I knew that if I walked in as one voice, I would probably be dismissed as one voice, because that’s what tends to happen. So I got pretty busy.
In one night, I talked to 150 people online — friends, strangers, people who were my friends on Facebook, it didn’t matter. I heard some strange things, but every single person I talked to supported my actions. They all trusted me enough as a person, and understood the issue well enough to see that what the school was doing, even if they agreed with it, wasn’t constitutionally sound.
I met with Steven Friedman, who had pushed the issue of starting a Gay-Straight Alliance at Irmo High School that caused Mr. Walker to walk out. I sat down with him at a coffee shop, and we wrote a nice little letter to [Superintendent] Stephen Hefner.
When I walked into Mr. Hefner’s office, I gave him the letter. Mr. Kozloski was also there. It was a productive, friendly meeting. Mr. Hefner said he’d get back to me later that day. And so, I received this famously quotable email:
“While I am a staunch supporter of separation of church and state, I do not believe that freedom of religion should be interpreted as freedom from religion within public schools.”
That’s one hell of a proposition. The next day was graduation, and I walked across, and they prayed, and I didn’t remove my cap, and I did lock eyes with the superintendent.
A lot of news interviews followed, and from what I’ve heard, the comments got nasty. The only one particularly scary kind of event or comment was online, someone who posted my home address and cell phone number.
That was sandwiched between two mildly aggressive people blurting out anger at me. So, as Len said, I do have black belt in karate, and I was walking around the house with my bow staff like “I’m not going die today.”
I was pretty convinced I was going to live. Nothing happened, of course, so I was fine. What was so weird and crazy to me about my case was that the moment it was a story, so much support came out of nowhere — the community, the national atheist community, FFRF, Friendly Atheist, Secular Student Alliance, Center for Inquiry.
I had no idea any of this existed, and they were all within an instant surrounding me in support and compassion and reason, and it felt amazing because on no level of this issue was I, the kid, doing the terrible thing. I was the person standing up, and everyone saw that, and it was great.
Most recently, we’ve had the North Carolina Student Secular Summit, which is a terribly long name, and it was great. It was supported by the Triangle Freethought group, which I believe is an FFRF group, right? Yes.
We also have the Carolina Secular Association now, and the Secular Coalition for South Carolina, and Harrison Hopkins has a student group at Presbyterian College in South Carolina. Harrison has already raised more than $2,000 at Presbyterian College, a school with fewer than like 5,000 kids, for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. That’s amazing!
In this lawsuit, to maintain legal standing [because he’d graduated], I had to get two co-plaintiffs, two good friends of mine. Dakota McMillan, one of them, just this past week, I believe, started the Secular Student Alliance at Irmo High School, the 400th SSA affiliate.
The final point I’d like to make: I feel like, maybe, that bible belt Mr. Weinkle was referencing is starting to get unbuckled. And I think we in the freethought movement throw around the term a lot when we’re talking about the South. From what I’ve seen, using that term did nothing but support the Religious Right’s claim in my case.
I think this is the rise of the “secular South.” Thank you all. Thank you all so much!
Matthew “Max” Nielson is principal plaintiff in FFRF’s federal lawsuit against School District 5 of Lexington and Richland Counties, S.C. Jacob Zupon and Dakota McMillan are co-plaintiffs who will graduate respectively from Irmo High School in 2013 and 2014, keeping the lawsuit ripe. A district policy titled “School Ceremonies and Observations” sets guidelines for benedictions and invocations at graduations and athletic events: Use of prayer “will be determined by a majority vote of the graduating senior class with the advice and counsel of the principal.”
The prayer, written by the district but delivered by a student “volunteer,” was addressed to “Father” and asked for the “Lord’s guidance, protection and mercy,” asked students to be “touched” by “the Lord,” to be led “on the path you intend for their lives to lead” and thanked a deity for “the teachers, parents and administrators that were here through our 12 years of school.”
Jessica Ahlquist, plaintiff in a successful federal lawsuit challenging a prayer banner at her high school in Cranston, R.I., gave this speech [edited for print] October 12, 2012, at FFRF’s 35th national convention in Portland, Ore. Jessica stood tall in the face of adversity and became the first recipient of FFRF’s Atheists in Foxholes Support Fund, a $10,000 award. She also received two Thomas Jefferson Student Activist Awards (a $2,000 award in 2012 and a $1,000 award in 2011).
First, let me give my biggest thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and to everybody here, with special thanks to the Eisenbergs, who really help support students like Max and me. I can give you my thanks all day, but I will never be able to fully express how wonderful and supportive FFRF has been.
The story I am going to tell you was certainly no walk in the park for me, but it was made possible by the people who came to fight at my side, and that was Annie Laurie and Dan and all of you. You are some of the coolest, bravest people I’ve ever met.
Everything has changed for me in the last few years. I’d like to reflect on what’s happened. I was born and raised in Rhode Island. I started attending Cranston High School West when I was 14. Cranston and Rhode Island are overwhelmingly Catholic.
I always knew I wasn’t welcome to share my real beliefs and continued to call myself a Catholic until the day I came out as an atheist. Near the end of my freshman year in spring 2010, I saw the prayer banner [actually a painted mural] for the first time in the school auditorium. I knew almost immediately it was wrong to have it in a public school.
I thought of going to the principal’s office to remind him it was there. I did a lot of research on the Constitution and American history, and by the time I finally decided that I wanted to report this to the school administration, school had already gotten out for the year.
But that summer, a private group rented out the auditorium for a recital. The mother of one of the girls in the recital noticed the prayer. As a secular Jew, it was unsettling for her. Her mother-in-law, a Holocaust survivor, was also in the audience. (And they don’t tell this in school, but Hitler was a Catholic.) The mother decided to write to the America Civil Liberties Union, which sent a letter to the school that the prayer needed to be removed because it violated the Constitution.
That summer the school committee [of the city of Cranston, i.e., the school board] put together a subcommittee to discuss its options. Of course there really weren’t options. In this country, we vote on many things, but we don’t vote on people’s rights — we do, but we shouldn’t.
The subcommittee scheduled public meetings. I was so happy and relieved. I thought, “How awesome, now I don’t have to do anything.” But I was really invested and I wanted to reach out to that mother and show her that she wasn’t the only person who felt the way she did about the prayer.
I didn’t know the atheist community existed. I didn’t know what the ACLU was. So I did the only thing I could think of. I created a Facebook group specifically about removing the prayer. I would come home every day to see if anyone had joined, and no one did for months. But I was excited and really wanted someone to join my group.
In November 2010, the school committee had a second public meeting. I was naïve. I believed that when I got to the meeting, these educated administrators and lawyers and politicians were going to say, “Oh, we forgot it was there. We’ll take it down because of course that’s illegal.”
Only about 15 people were there. I’ve absolutely hated public speaking all my life, but I was so upset and confused by what people were claiming about our country’s history and Constitution that I decided that I had to speak. I was literally shaking, and my voice was so soft it’s amazing that people were even able to hear me.
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, someone let out an audible gasp and another person whispered, “That little witch.” I was shocked, intimidated and scared, but I was also really angry. The people that followed me to speak were lying through their teeth.
I had said that the prayer didn’t follow the concept of separation of church and state, that in this case, prayer was the church and school was the state. I thought that was pretty simple, but a priest smirked at me and said “Honey, Russia had state schools; we certainly don’t want that.”
It made me so angry that I decided to speak again that night. I noticed how good it felt to say, “I don’t believe in God” and to just let them squirm and to not care.
No more pretense
I’d been pretending all my life. That night a video camera was stuck in my face and I was on the local news, just for being an atheist. It’s really that easy. I’d honestly thought the meeting was just a formality, that no one would actually say the prayer should stay up because they’re educated adults and stuff.
But I learned what easily was the biggest lesson I learned in all of this: There’s a difference between an adult and a grownup.
I went online and found my Facebook group had exploded in a few hours. Over 150 people had joined and were wishing me support. The group eventually reached over 6,000 members. That’s a big part of how I got through this.
The average high schooler doesn’t exactly watch the news and keep up-to-date with what’s going on in their community, so few people in school knew what was happening and no one really brought it up. But silly me, hearing about our rights, I kept researching and speaking at meetings to convince them to remove it. That’s when everything started getting crazy.
The next meeting in February 2011 was much larger, maybe a hundred people. I don’t think most of them knew why they were there because a lot of them were talking about abortion and America’s borders and random stuff, the economy. An older woman said how prayers in school remind kids to be good and not get pregnant. She pursed her lips and looked over at my friend and me.
At the last meeting in March, the full school committee voted 4-3 to keep the prayer up. Over 250 people attended and all but six were wearing signs that said “Keep original banner.” I was devastated.
Just because some people tried to vote on my rights does not mean I was going to settle for that. I was faced with this issue and decided to see it through. With help from the ACLU, I filed a lawsuit, Ahlquist v. City of Cranston in April 2011.
The morning after we filed, I came into homeroom, like I do every day. The morning announcements came on and everyone rose to say the Pledge of Allegiance. During the appropriate moment, all of the students turned and screamed “under God” at me. I was actually surprised by that but I should have expected it. The teacher did nothing. I knew that reporting it was useless because most of the administration hated me anyway. From that morning on, I refused to say the pledge, refused to take part in something used as a weapon.
It’s utterly sick that on the first day of kindergarten, 5-year-olds memorize how to pledge their allegiance. They don’t know what allegiance means. And, as I’m sure you know, “under God” wasn’t even added until the 1950s.
The administration and members of my community were inexcusably unconcerned about my daily treatment and often made things even worse. During diversity week, the school has little presentations about discrimination — bullying, racial topics, etc. The diversity week team invited the mayor, Allan Fung, to speak about minorities and how as a Chinese American, he had succeeded in the world of politics.
After he finished giving his nice little speech, someone asked, “How do you feel about the prayer?” We were in the auditorium, and he pointed to it and said, “I want to see that prayer stay exactly where it is. I have a law degree. This doesn’t discriminate against anyone and I’m Catholic.”
The students jumped up, cheering and clapping. Then an autistic student raised his hand and tried to explain why the prayer was illegal. The mayor just kind of dismissed him, and none of the 10 or so teachers in the room offered to let me leave or do anything to calm anyone down. I had to sit there and let them all stare at me for the rest of the presentation.
One day in English class, my friend’s boyfriend texted her to tell her that they were debating “the prayer.” Kids in his class were threatening to beat me and my friend up. We’ve been best friends since seventh grade. I think her parents blame me for her being an atheist. This obviously scared us, so we went to guidance and got dismissed early from school.
There were afternoons when I would come home crying. Acquaintances wanted nothing to do with me. I didn’t even see my friends very much, because even though they still liked me, they didn’t want people to hate them for associating with me.
Even just walking down the hall to use my locker was a struggle because people would yell things and stop me in the hallway. But things would get much, much worse.
I received a phone call in January from Steven Brown, the executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU. He simply said, “Hey Jess, we won.”
I was so thrilled I said, “Shut up” to this esteemed lawyer. More than excited though, I was relieved to have won the lawsuit, but more relieved that it was finally over. This nightmare experience was done, and everyone could forget about what happened and go on as normal. But that’s not what happened.
The very night I won, the craziness started. People took to social media to express their sincerest hate toward me. Twitter and Facebook absolutely exploded with death threats and rape threats and other terrible things.
My favorite, and I mean that ironically of course, was “OMG she is almost as bad as blacks.”
Kids whom I had known since kindergarten were threatening my life and insulting my character, saying I was a freak and should die. People said I should be gang-raped and my family should lose their home and live out of boxes in the street.
Some of the kids warned me they were going to throw things at me if I came to class. Other people claimed to know license plate numbers of the cars my family members drove. My home address was posted online. I have an 11-year-old brother and a 7-year-old brother whom I worried about every single day.
I have a little sister who’s 15 whom I worried about the whole time I was in class because these people seemed to have no limits.
One day I was walking up my driveway and a group of kids drove by screaming out the window that they hoped I burn in hell. They had followed me home. The threats became so terrible, in fact, that the city decided to provide me with police officers who followed me around from class to class every single day for weeks.
I don’t need to explain to you how that made learning and having a normal high school experience impossible. The community as a whole was doing everything it could to make me feel hated and out of place. They wanted me to leave and literally said “Get the hell out of here.”
There was this organization that tried to send me flowers, the Freedom From Religion Foundation or something like that [laughter]. They contacted four different flower shops and they all refused to send me flowers. But you know, Annie Laurie and Dan don’t give up, and they were mad and eventually found a flower shop in Connecticut [Glimpse of Gaia] that agreed to send me, the “evil little Satan girl,” flowers.
The atheist community was so glad that someone had not been a bigoted jerk that they sent me so many flowers that I was not able to see my floor. I’m amazed that I didn’t suffocate in my sleep. The owners are really nice people, and they recorded something like “We’re thankful for the business and praise, but this is our job. We don’t need to be praised for not discriminating against people.”
I know them personally now. They are really good people and I believe they’re atheists, too.
‘Evil little thing’
Of course you all know about “evil little thing.” [Democratic state Rep. Peter Palumbo called her that on a radio show.] I can’t seem to get away from that. I was actually introduced as an “evil little thing” at the Reason Rally in front of 25,000 people. They presented me with a check for $60,000. That was a scholarship fund that Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, started so that I can go to college.
It was really meaningful to have the people who had donated in front of me. JT Eberhard had made “evil little thing” T-shirts to sell, with the profit going to my scholarship fund. I thank all of you who did that for me. That’s one of the greatest things that has come of all of this.
Eventually, the subcommittee held the final meeting to discuss whether to appeal our victory. In the weeks leading up to that meeting, my wonderful uncle Steve (who everyone thinks is my father) and who founded the Humanists of Rhode Island, sent out email and Facebook alerts and did everything he could to explain that we really need people to come to this meeting to show support for the court’s ruling.
The school was already in debt and had spent over $100,000 on this lawsuit, paying my lawyers because they had won. And, of course, who got blamed for the cost of the lawsuit? I did.
My uncle was successful though. People even came from out of state, driving for hours just to be at that one meeting. They stood out in the rain just so we could all get into the meeting.
Police searched the building for bombs before the meeting. I’m not kidding; it was that ridiculous. There were hundreds of people, and it was just as hilarious as it was scary. There were signs everywhere, screaming people, lunatics, all you can imagine.
After hours and hours of people speaking — it was more people on our side than the other side this time — they decided not to appeal. The vote was 5-2. We won, and it’s over now!
The hate continued for a little while after that. Overall, I came out of this far more positive than negative. The support I received was infinitely stronger than the hate.
Again, thank you for all of that. This is a great group of people, and I’m so glad for this community because they’ve given me a lot more than I would have expected.