Maia Disbrow, a 12-year-old from Hixson, Tenn., has received $1,000 as a student activist from the Freedom From Religion Foundation this month, for speaking before the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners to ask them to drop government prayer.
She becomes the fifth and youngest student to receive a student activist award from FFRF in 2012, and the third student awardee from Tennessee this year. Krystal Myers, 18, of Lenoir City, Tenn., received a $1,000 award from FFRF this spring after her column, “No Rights: The Life of an Atheist,” was banned from her high school newspaper. Jeff Shott, 17, of Spring Hill, Tenn., also received $1,000 after dressing up as Jesus Christ for Fictional Character Day and protesting state-church entanglements at his high school.
Maia got involved when she accompanied her father to a board meeting where he spoke up against government prayers, and witnessed the board giving a special award to the preacher. Maia decided on her own that she wanted to speak against prayers at the July 18 meeting.
“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. During elementary school, I was bullied about my beliefs and whenever the subject of my religion, or lack thereof, came up, my social status dropped for a few days. 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.”
Good morning. My name is Maia Disbrow, and I am twelve 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.
Click here to view Maia's speech.
Maia will be entering seventh grade at the Center for Creative Arts. She loves to read, having taught herself to read at 18 months, will be appearing in a local production of “Medea,” has a dog and two guinea pigs, and a younger brother, Logan.
Contentious prayers before the board are the subject of a federal lawsuit filed July 3 by Hamilton County residents Tommy Coleman, a secular humanist, and Brandon Jones, who identifies as an atheist.
FFRF has three formally endowed annual student activist awards of $1,000 each: The Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award endowed by a West Coast FFRF couple, the Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award, partly from a bequest by Catherine supplemented by smaller contributions by many FFRF members, and the new Paul J. Gaylor Memorial Student Activist Award, created by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
This year, victorious Rhode Island school prayer litigant Jessica Ahlquist received the Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award, doubled as a one-time bonus to $2,000 after her state legislator called her “an evil little thing,” and her victory set off a new wave of harassment.
In June, Matthew “Max” Nielson received the Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award of $1,000 as principal plaintiff in FFRF’s new lawsuit challenging illegal graduation prayers at his high school in Columbia, S.C.
Last year, FFRF awarded six student activist awards, five to high school students and one to a middle school student.
Maia is tied with another 12-year-old for being FFRF’s youngest honoree. In 1996, FFRF gave a Freethinker of the Year Award, Jr. to Michael Bristor, age 12, from Minnesota. His name had been dropped from the honor roll when he was six, after his family had protested illegal classroom prayer and the school board did nothing about daily harassment. Michael’s battle, with the help of the ACLU and Minnesota Atheists, ended when he receive his honor roll certificate six years late.
“We are so impressed with activism by high schoolers and even middle schoolers in areas of the country that are hotbeds of intolerance, and are standing up not just for their rights but for the Constitution,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Read about FFRF's other student activist awards here.
Matthew “Max” Nielson, 18, is the principal plaintiff in FFRF’s federal lawsuit challenging illegal graduation prayer at his high school. Two younger students have signed on as plaintiffs. Max is an honors and international baccalaureate candidate. He’s training for a black belt in American freestyle karate this summer. He’s an Eagle Scout who is religiously unaffiliated. Max received a $1,000 Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award from FFRF in 2012.
Early in the 2011-2012 school year at Irmo High School of Lexington Richland School District 5 in Columbia, S.C., faculty members distributed ballots to determine whether a majority of graduating seniors were in favor of holding a prayer at their graduation ceremony. The majority was in favor, to no one’s surprise.
District policy allows for that action, so long as the prayer is nonsectarian and nonproselytizing — which is to say, it can be explicitly Christian, so long as it makes no distinctions between Catholics and Baptists, for example. The spirit of inclusion stops there.
I wasn’t comfortable getting that ballot in my English class, but growing up as an atheist in South Carolina, I was used to exposure to public prayer and the religious status quo. After becoming familiar with Harrison Hopkins’ story — a student activist who, with the help of FFRF, reversed his school district’s stance on a majoritarian-governed graduation prayer in South Carolina last year — I took immediate action. Timing was critical, as I was inspired to take action just 10 days before the graduation ceremony.
FFRF moved swiftly, issuing the appropriate letters of notice and securing a spectacular lawyer for local counsel. I met with the district superintendent to discuss the issue to attempt to reach a resolution. He delivered his decision in a follow-up email after we met, which ironically states, “I do not believe that Freedom of Religion should be interpreted as requiring Freedom from Religion within the public schools.”
As such, the prayer and lawsuit proceeded. I recruited two younger students from Irmo to join the suit to ensure that it will survive despite my graduation and departure from District 5.
This event lead my realization that I have a true passion for secular activism, and I plan to tenaciously pursue involvement with the College of Charleston’s chapter of the Secular Student Alliance throughout my next four years of education.
Jeff Shott, 17, is the first recipient of the Paul J. Gaylor Memorial Student Activist Award, a newly endowed scholarship of $1,000. Similar awards offered through FFRF are the annual Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award and the Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award. Jeff is a student at Summit High School in Spring Hill, Tenn., 30 miles south of Nashville.
I’d arrived at school this Monday before 8:15 a.m. and waited in the cafeteria until classes started, eating breakfast with friends and adding finishing touches to my Jesus costume.
The head principal, Dr. Farmer, soon came up and asked me to come to his office. The assistant principal, Ms. Lamb, and Officer Pewit, school resource officer, were waiting outside the cafeteria. Dr. Farmer asked me whom I was portraying. I told him that I was Jesus Christ. He said he had been hoping my answer would have been Zeus (or some other variation of a mythological deity).
Even though I’m typically very openly atheistic and have no problem discussing my views, I was a little distraught that all three school authority figures were addressing me at once. Dr. Farmer claimed I couldn’t have things both ways — I couldn’t complain about teachers talking about Jesus and also dress up as Jesus on Fictional Character Day.
I’d had a long talk with him earlier after my science teacher, in reply to a question about evolution, had publicly said things such as “Evolution is just a theory,” “I don’t believe it at all,” and, “We actually come from Adam and Eve.” It’s fairly clear that she openly advocates not only Intelligent Design, but straight-up biblical creationism.
I immediately asked her, “Can you honestly say that as a science teacher?” She told me that she could. That upset me a lot.
When I mentioned this to him, Dr. Farmer had wondered if we should just teach “both theories” equally, essentially advocating that we “teach the controversy.” I explained why creationism doesn’t belong in a science classroom, that my teacher wouldn’t be able to substantiate her claim with empirical evidence or the scientific method. I compared it to the “Intelligent Falling Theory” of Pastafarianism.
I also pointed out that by teaching the bible as true, she was teaching Christianity as fact, which further implied she was teaching that non-Christians are going to hell. He had said he would talk to her and give her a warning.
Now, he told me my costume was controversial and likely to disrupt the learning environment. I explained that my quarrel with my science teacher wasn’t one of personal offense, but of professionalism. I told him that by teaching creationism, she was teaching something unconstitutional and flat-out dishonest. As a science teacher and an educator, she was out of line teaching biblical creationism. She was only adding to the already dishearteningly prevalent misconceptions on the theory of evolution, the very basis of our understanding of modern biology.
Both principals said they were worried my costume would spark religious debates in every class and take up large amounts of time. I was sternly warned that if even one teacher reported the slightest disruption, I would have to take off my costume. Then and there, I decided to take it off.
Even though the vast majority of students in my school are religious, many told me how much they liked my costume and how disappointed they were that I had to take it off. Even my teachers thought it was funny. Only a very few of my peers said they thought it was in bad taste, and none did so during instructional time.
I wondered, if a religious debate had been sparked, wouldn’t it be up to the teachers to control the classroom and deal with students who actually disrupted class time? I was merely participating in Fictional Character Day.
When I went home, I posted photos and details of what had happened to the r/atheism section of one of my favorite websites, Reddit.com. My fellow Redditors were, with very few exceptions, overwhelmingly supportive and said my civil liberties had been violated. Many urged me to contact the Freedom from Religion Foundation, so I did.
I soon received a reply from FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, who sent a letter to the school district on my behalf, and I greatly appreciate that.
Atheist in the bible belt
Statistics show that the least trusted and most despised American minority is the atheist community. I, along with most of my atheist friends and family, have experienced this firsthand.
My younger brother and I have both been told that we are only atheists because we are possessed by demons. We’ve been told that when we read the bible as nonbelievers, the devil himself literally changes the words, making it impossible for us to gain an adequate understanding of the word of god. After telling someone that I am an atheist, it’s not uncommon for the initial response to resemble a personal attack such as “You’re a bad person,” or a threat,
“You’re going to hell.”
One religionist asked me why I had become an atheist: “Was it family trouble, abuse?” Others assume that atheists are simply rebelling against “god and his rules,” or that we put as much “faith” in science as religious people do in their doctrines.
I’ve even met a very fundamentalist Christian who told me that science is a left-wing conspiracy made up of people rebelling against god.
Last year, a teacher leading the class in prayer openly criticized my brother for refusing to bow his head. One of his peers caught him reading my copy of Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, picked it up and threw it on the ground.
We smile whenever one of our friends tells us we’re on their church’s prayer list. I made one list four times in one day.
Getting to know you
People seem less likely to treat you poorly as an atheist once they get to know you and develop a deeper understanding of the reasoning behind your disbelief. I post Facebook status updates of atheist quotes, YouTube videos made by atheists, etc. I share and explain my views and opinions with a sizeable number of the most devout Christians from my school and in my area, including pastors, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes leader at my school and other adults and teens.
I’ve had Christian peers say things like, “I read that debate on your Facebook wall last night, and it really made me think.” In fact, I first really started to get to know my girlfriend after she read some of my anti-theist sentiments on Facebook and struck up a conversation with me.
Being a bible belt atheist has highlights and lowlights. One of the best things any atheist can do, especially in the South, is to come out of the heathen’s closet. When nontheists are open with others, it debunks misconceptions. As Dawkins would say, we act as consciousness raisers, and if enough of us do so, we can shed favorable light on the atheist community and perhaps one day shift the statistics in our favor.
If you had told me two years ago that I would one day be receiving a scholarship and award from a group like FFRF as a result of my secular activism, I wouldn’t have believed you. You see, I was previously quite the quintessential, vehemently fundamentalist Christian — a young Earth creationist, a biblical literalist, a Calvinist, a homophobe — the whole nine yards.
It’s been two years since then, and, though it’s still difficult to wrap my head around the fact that I’ve won an FFRF student activist award, needless to say, I’m honored.
The Paul J. Gaylor Memorial Student Activist Award is principally endowed by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
“Krystal Myers is an honors student, captain of the swim team and editor of her high school newspaper. She’s also an atheist in a predominantly Christian student body.”
That’s how the Knoxville News Sentinel started its Feb. 23 story on how Myers’ column, “No Rights: The Life of an Atheist,” was banned from publication in the Panther Press by Schools Director Wayne Miller because of what he called the potential for disruption in the school.
“We do have the right to control the content of the school paper if we feel it is in the best interest of the students,” Miller told the News Sentinel.
Here is the “disruptive” column:
The point of view expressed in this article does not necessarily reflect the point of view of the Panther Press, its staff, adviser or school.
As a current student in government, I have realized that I feel that my rights as an atheist are severely limited and unjust when compared to other students who are Christians. Not only are there multiple clubs featuring the Christian faith, but youth ministers are also allowed to come onto school campus and hand candy and other food out to Christians and their friends.
However, I feel like if an atheist did that, people would not be happy about it. This may not be true, but due to pervasive negative feelings towards atheists in the school, I feel that it would be the case. My question is, “Why? Why does atheism have such a bad reputation?”
An even better question: “Why do Christians have special rights not allowed to nonbelievers?”
Before I begin, I want to clear up some misconceptions about atheism. No, we do not worship the “devil.” We do not believe in God, so we also do not believe in Satan. And we may be “godless” but that does not mean that we are without morals. I know, personally, I strive to be the best person I can be, even without religion.
In fact, I have been a better person since I have rejected religion. Perhaps the most important misconception is that we want to convert everyone into atheists and that we hate Christians. For the most part, we just want to be respected for who we are and not be judged.
Now you should know exactly what an atheist is. Dictionary.com says that an atheist is, “a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.” However, this does not mean that atheists do not believe in higher causes; we just do not believe in a higher being.
With that being said, I can move on to the real issue. Before I begin, I want you to think about your rights and how your perceived “rights” might be affecting the rights of others.
There are several instances where my rights as a nonbeliever, and the rights of anyone other than a Christian, have been violated. These instan-ces inspired me to investigate the laws concerning the separation of church and state, and I learned some interesting things. First, I would like you to know specifically what my grievances are against the school.
First and foremost is the sectarian prayer that occurs at graduation every year. Fortunately, I am not the first one to have thought that this was a problem. In the Supreme Court case, Lee v. Weisman, it was decided that allowing prayer at graduation is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Special speakers can pray, but the school cannot endorse the prayer or plan for it to happen.
Public prayer also occurs at all of the home football games using the public address system. This has, again, been covered by the Supreme Court case Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. The court ruled that school-sponsored prayer is an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause. If a speaker prays, it is fine. However, as soon as the school provides sponsorship, it becomes illegal. Sponsorship can be almost anything, even something as simple as saying that the speaker can pray or choosing a speaker with a known propensity to pray or share his or her religious views.
It is not just the speakers whom we have to fear at Lenoir City High School. We also have to fear some of the teachers and what they might say about their own religious beliefs. On at least two separate occasions, teachers have made their religious preferences known to basically the whole school.
One teacher has made her religious preferences known by wearing a T-shirt depicting the crucifix while performing her duties as a public employee. Also, Kristi Brackett, a senior at Lenoir City High School, has said that the teacher, “strongly encouraged us to join [a religious club] and be on the group’s leadership team.”
Yet again, this violates the Establishment Clause. When asked if this was true, the teacher replied, “As a teacher I would never use my power of influence to force my beliefs or the beliefs of [a religious club] on any student in the school.”
Regardless, the religious T-shirts are still inappropriate in the school setting. Teachers are prohibited from making their religious preferences known. The Constitution requires them to be neutral when acting in their capacity as a public school teacher.
Not only are religious preferences shown through shirts, but also through a “Quote of the Day” that some teachers write on the boards in their classrooms. One teacher has bible verses occasionally as the teacher’s “Quote of the Day” for students. The Establishment Clause has been violated yet again with no regard for nonbelievers.
Perhaps I would have more hope in our school and the possibility of change on the horizon if our own School Board did not open their meetings with prayer. A person who wished to remain anonymous that has been present at board meetings says, “They do have prayers. They pray to ‘Our Heavenly Father’ and end with ‘In Jesus’ name we pray.’ ”
This not only violates the Constitution, it violates the board’s own policy prohibiting prayer at school-sponsored events. The whole foundation of how our school is conducted is established by obvious Christians. Somehow, this is unsurprising. If our School Board chooses to ignore the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the Supreme Court, then it is no surprise that teachers choose to do the same.
I know that I will keep trying to gain my rights as an atheist and as an American citizen, but I also need your help in educating other people to realize the injustice done to all minority groups. The Christian faith cannot rule the United States. It is unconstitutional. Religion and government are supposed to be separate. If we let this slide, what other amendments to the Constitution will be ignored?
I leave it to you to decide what you will or will not do, but just remember that nonbelievers are not what you originally thought we were. We are human beings just like you.
Jessica Ahlquist - Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist – 2012
Jessica Ahlquist, 16, was a plaintiff in a successful ACLU federal lawsuit to force removal of an 8-foot-tall prayer banner from her Rhode Island high school. After winning the lawsuit she received the Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award for the second time. This time FFRF awarded Ahlquist $2,000 doubling the $1,000 award she received in 2011.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation congratulates Jessica Ahlquist, for prevailing in a heated state-church lawsuit challenging a prayer banner at her high school in Cranston, R.I. The school board there took the right, rational and fiscally responsible action, by voting not to appeal the Jan. 11 ruling by U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux. The judge had ordered the removal of a large prayer inscribed on a banner in the auditorium of Cranston High School West, beginning, "Our Heavenly Father" and ending "Amen."
"Jessica, with sweet determination, stood up for the First Amendment and its precious principle of separation between church and state, she persevered under acutely difficult circumstances, and she has prevailed," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
Ahlquist, 5 feet tall and only 16 years old, was targeted by many in her state and community, including by her state representative, who publicly labeled her "an evil little thing." She had become such a persona non grata in the overwhelmingly Catholic community that four local florists refused to deliver flowers FFRF had ordered after her January federal court victory.
In response to all of the backlash surrounding Jessica's win, especially the comments made by her state representative, FFRF created a special fund, “The Atheists in Foxholes Support Fund,” to provide scholarships and assistance to persons who exhibit bravery in furthering the cause and experience hardship because of that stand. Jessica is the first recipient of this special fund.
Background On Jessica's Case
The Freedom From Religion Foundation will be making its mark next week as 880 of its members from around the country visit Portland to attend FFRF’s 35th national convention. Helping to celebrate the occasion are more than 15 Portland-area FFRF members or families who volunteered to appear on a set of myth-dispelling billboard campaigns timed with the convention. FFRF is launching its largest “This is what an atheist looks” campaign to date in Portland, also debuting a new slogan: “I’m SECULAR and I VOTE.” FFRF has leased three 14x48-foot bulletins and 12 EcoPoster (10-foot x 22.8-inch billboards), which will be appearing in a variety of Portland locations.
FFRF’s sell-out convention takes place Friday-Sunday, Oct. 12-14 at the Downtown Portland Hilton and Towers, 921 SW Sixth Avenue. The convention will open Friday night with award acceptance speeches by two student activists, and by the premier atheist intellectual, Richard Dawkins. The event continues Saturday with appearances by bestselling mystery author Sara Paretsky and “Letting Go of God” actress and comedian Julia Sweeney, among others.
“We were pleasantly surprised we had more volunteers than we could manage to use in the campaign. We wish we hadn’t had to turn anyone away,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. She noted that the definitive American Religious Identification Survey shows that 24% of Oregonians identify as nonreligious, so these FFRF’ers have plenty of good company. FFRF thanks FFRF Life Member Steve Eltinge for taking the professional photographs, and all participants for making the PR campaign possible.
Michelle and Justin Atterbury will be pictured on a magenta 14x48-foot billboard saying “This is what an atheist family looks like,” with their toddler, Sylvan, and baby, Scarlett. Also on a 14x48-foot bulletin saying “This is what atheists look like” will be Roy Firestone, an engineer, and Karen Firestone, a Portland homemaker. Another couple, Heather Gonsior, drafter, and Shawn Swagerty, information systems director, appear on a billboard with the same message.
Appealing brothers Brent Mangum, a chemist and OSU tutor, and Tyler, a physiologist, are pictured back-to-back on a blue “This is what atheists look like” 14x48-foot billboard.
Other “This is what an atheist looks like” participants, each featured on their own billboard, are: Anita Brown, whose exotic cat, Wheely, also makes an appearance; Renee Barnett, a neurologist grad student and university teaching assistant; and Sonja Maglothin, an income auditor. Featured on bright blue “This is what an atheist looks like” billboards will be Dr. Peter Boghossian, a well-known philosophy instructor at Portland State University, who has an upcoming book, Against Faith; Mark Hecate, a member of FFRF who is I.T. director of New Avenues for Youth, and Scott Mullin, a filmmaker in Portland.
With the election so close, FFRF is also unveiling a timely billboard slogan, “I’m SECULAR and I VOTE.” The red, white and blue billboards feature the smiling faces of Lenora Warren, a retired Portland teacher; retired engineer Duane A. Damiano, a Life Member of FFRF; retired politician and novelist Caroline Miller; Paul Buchman and Marsha Abelman, both retired.
“With up to 19% of the U.S. population now identifying as nonreligious, when are politicians and candidates going to wake up to the changing demographics and start courting us? Secularists are looking for candidates who share a commitment to America’s foundational principle of separation between religion and government,” said Dan Barker, FFRF Co-President.
Barker, a former minister and author of two books, Godless and Losing Faith in Faith, will moderate a unique panel at the conference featuring four former ministers turned atheists, who are all part of The Clergy Project. Jerry DeWitt, a former Pentecostal minister, was the first “graduate” of The Clergy Project, a support group developed by Dawkins, Barker, Tufts Professor Daniel Dennett and researcher Linda LaScola, to aid ministers who have lost their faith and are looking for a way out of the pulpit. Joining DeWitt is Teresa MacBain, another new “graduate” who left the Methodist Church, as did annalise fonza. Robert Parham, a former Southern Baptist minister, will also appear.
No tickets may be purchased at the door.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has once again qualified for inclusion in the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC).
The CFC is the only officially sanctioned program for soliciting federal government employees on behalf of charitable organizations. The CFC conducts annual campaigns in the workplace and allows federal employees to make donations through payroll deductions or other forms of payment to an approved list of charities. It’s part of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
The Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was first included on the CFC list of eligible charities in 2008. “Federal workers had contacted the Foundation in the past, noting the many religious charities on the listing, and wishing there were a nontheist alternative,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president.
“We’re delighted to announce now again in 2012 that our activities throughout the United States, including the many scholarships we grant students, helped FFRF meet the rigorous eligibility criteria,” Gaylor said.
To the Foundation’s knowledge, it’s the only freethought group on the list, which includes hundreds of religious groups. All dues and donations to FFRF are deductible for income-tax purposes.
“Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.” will appear in the listing of “National/International Independent Organizations” that’s published in each local campaign charity list in the early fall.
The solicitation period for 2012 campaign donations is Sept. 1 through Dec. 15. Deadlines vary by region. The CFC code that donors will use to designate their contribution to FFRF is 32519.
CFC donors contributed more than $63,000 to FFRF in 2010 and more than $88,000 in 2011.
Another way to give is via matching grant donations, which have become a significant boost to FFRF in recent years. Many companies offer to match (fully or a percentage of) their employees’ donations to charitable nonprofits. These matches multiply the impact of the initial donation to further FFRF’s goals.
Gaylor added, "It is recommended that all CFC donors check the box to include their name and mailing address (in addition to your email) with the donation. Donors will receive an acknowledgment from FFRF when we receive pledge notification (throughout the year). If you do not receive that acknowledgment, please contact FFRF to be sure we have been given your name and information about your pledge."
Charity Navigator gives FFRF its highest rating of four stars, which means “exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in its cause.”
This ad appears in Military Times.