Equal Access Strikes Back by Adam Butler (November 1996)

 This is exerpted from a delivered speech on October 12, 1996 at the Freedom From Religion Foundation annual convention in Madison, Wisconsin.

By Adam Butler

Iam Adam Butler of the Alabama Freethought Association, a local chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Talladega, Alabama. I will have been a member for a year in February.

I found the Foundation by searching the Internet under the keyword “atheist.” When I found the web site Dan Barker maintains, I was shocked to find an actual organization dedicated to the very beliefs in question. I e-mailed him and received the address to contact the Alabama chapter.

My first meeting at the AFA left a strong impression on me. When I parked my car and began to walk toward the meeting hall, I started to doubt my sense of direction and worried that I might not be where I should. I asked an older couple who were also getting out of their car if I was at the right place. The man looked at me and responded, “That depends on whether you want to go to heaven or hell.” Somehow, I knew I was going to like this place even before I’d set foot in the door.

The meeting was great. Everyone there talked openly about feelings and thoughts that I had always been taught were improper, illicit, or evil. I had conditioned myself to believe that all of society was trying to force me to conform to a religious dogma, and yet these people encouraged me to think for myself, to make my own decisions. I was addicted to this “freethought;” I was being offered the perfect forbidden fruit, and, like my biblical namesake, I did eat.

It wasn’t too long after my first meeting that I began to encourage friends to come. The funny thing was, each atheist or agnostic friend of mine seemed to know another. Before too long, I began to realize that Pelham High wasn’t all Christian as I’d thought. Most of the people I had met were sick and tired of the constant bombardment of religion by various campus organizations.

There were three separate Christian groups meeting and/or advertising on campus, plus an after-school bible study at different peoples’ homes each week. It was about this time that the idea of the Pelham Freethought Association came about.

When I approached Pelham’s principal, well, let’s just say he wasn’t thrilled with the idea. I think his exact words were, “There will be no freethought club at PHS.” This confused me because after reading all of those FFRF non-tracts, I thought that I had more rights than that. When I asked about the other Christian groups and inquired about equal access law, he balked and scheduled a later appointment.

At the next appointment, he again had very little to say and again scheduled me to a later date. I dutifully attended and was rewarded with more procrastination.

Blaise Pascal once wrote, “Experience makes us see an enormous difference between piety and goodness.” I was a senior and in a few short months I would be graduating. I decided that he was trying to put me off indefinitely and I considered it a dirty trick of sorts. It was time to ask for help.

I called Pat Cleveland of the AFA, and she advised me to begin writing letters to Mr. Ferguson and to get his answers in writing so that we would have proof of his noncooperation. His first letter was just a reiteration of our last meetings: he conceded nothing and promised another communication in the future.

Pat and I began to prepare and mail copies of all of the letters to FFRF and the ACLU. Soon, the principal and our school superintendent began to receive phone calls and letters from them.

With all the heavy fire the administration was taking, I didn’t expect their silence to last too long, and it didn’t. On April 8, 1996, I was told that we had permission to start the group –on the condition that I get the Alabama Freethought Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation to quit calling the main office.

Our first meeting was on April 12, 1996. A handful of students showed up to discuss the group, mostly friends, but some just came to see what the meeting was about; most of them left when they found out what our purpose was. Now we had our group, but no members. It was time to start advertising.

The other members and I began to put posters all over the walls of the school; taking care to put them close to the Christian propaganda so that any student that saw a First Priority sign would in turn see a Pelham Freethought sign.

We did, however, always make sure that the Christian signs outnumbered ours. The main reason for this was that the different Christian groups’ advertisements already covered the walls of the high school; you could barely walk five feet without seeing one. So, we didn’t want to make them feel as if they needed to put more signs up in an attempt to combat the rising infidel influence, because they might have to resort to plastering signs on lockers, covering room numbers on classrooms, or perhaps putting their propaganda on the toilet seats of the restrooms!

But, instead of printing more posters, Pelham High School’s student body began to act more childlike than I had really anticipated. If I placed a sign in a hallway before school, it was a very lucky day if that sign was not ripped down before the end of first period.

I tried everything to keep those posters on the wall! Being a fairly tall person, I would put them as high as I could to keep the smaller people from being able to reach them, but they would always find a way. A couple of times, I would place a sign right next to a religious sign and I would connect the two with a large amount of clear tape. This didn’t stop the people from ripping them off, but I liked the idea that their own signs were being torn up in the process.

At least I was conscientious about what was going on–at the bottom of one of the signs I wrote, “Dear sir or madam, this is unbleached paper; when you tear it down please put it in the recycle bin instead of the trash.”

Eventually, this began to worry me. If a sign was only up long enough for a couple of people to see it before it was removed, nobody would know about the club! With 1400 students, word of mouth just wasn’t cutting it. Our numbers were still dwindling and three weeks had already gone by. It was getting dangerously close to graduation day and I was worried that I might not get through to the school before I was given my diploma and booted from the premises.

The other directors and I spoke on the issue and decided we needed to contact the press. It was amazing how easy it was; I just turned on my computer, one click here, one click there, typed in some stuff, and suddenly I had faxed every newspaper, TV and radio station in town. By that night, two newspaper articles were in the works and three television stations were trying to get in touch with me for an interview.

Once the media took off, there was no stopping them. They were putting my face on the television morning, noon, and night and putting my name on everyone’s doorstep in the afternoons. They always seemed to fit me in between a story about a mass murder and a labor union strike.

The media attention, of course, tried to sensationalize the story and brought bad publicity with one-sidedness and misrepresentations. It also brought a score of Neanderthal football players who felt they needed to beat me up in Jesus’ name. There is nothing quite like getting threatened by a person with a vocabulary fewer than 30 words.

But, the publicity also brought exactly what we needed: advertisement. Even if a student retched at the mention of the acronym “PFA,” at least they knew what it meant. Weekly attendance almost doubled our very next meeting. Pretty soon it wasn’t uncommon for 25 people to show up in a morning, which was exceptionally good if you consider First Priority’s normal 15-20 person attendance. In fact, some members of First Priority began to attend PFA meetings just to see what all of the hype was about. It seems that scandal brings people together much more effectively than God.

Our meetings were much as you would expect it: a brief summary of current events and then an open floor to whomever would like to speak their mind. While I was there, I learned about several beliefs I had never before heard of, and I was able to speak with the brightest of students, whether they were atheist, agnostic, or Catholic. People came to realize that their own thoughts were a treasure and began to see the beauty in thinking for themselves. It is solely for this reason that when I graduated and stepped down as the PFA’s director, I considered the work a success. After I was out of school and looked back to see what had been done, I was finally able to realize: we won.

Sadly, as of the beginning of the 1996-97 school year, the Pelham Freethought Association is no more. The downfall began last year when one of the directors was forced out of the organization by his parents when we were beginning to vote for the next year’s officers. He was a born leader; he would have been perfect for the job, but there was no arguing with his parents. It was getting late in the year and we had to look at other alternatives.

Apparently, and nobody can really blame them, no one wanted to become the poster child for a group that had spawned so much controversy. I worked tirelessly to find someone to take over for the next year, and I thought that I had, but he became a victim of the worst enemy any movement can have: apathy. He was interested for a while, but then he just didn’t care anymore.

So, as it came to be, the school year began. All of the Christian clubs remained silent — was it possible that the principal had closed the campus to the groups? My hopes of a once again secular school were shattered when I discovered the groups seem to have been waiting to see if the PFA still existed. When they found that it didn’t, they went right back to what they were doing and are in full force once again.

I am still communicating with former members of the PFA, trying to find someone to take over the reins. The way I see it, the groundwork is laid; the precedent has been set. All someone has to do is to pick up where we left off.

But even if they don’t, and the PFA is dead forever, it is still a victory no matter how you look at it. People all over the nation can look to a small town in Alabama in the middle of the Bible Belt and see a place where freethought beat out the bias of the administration. And if it can be done there, it can be done anywhere.

When the Equal Access Act of 1984 was upheld by a Supreme Court decision in 1990, Pat Robertson called it a “major landmark decision and a tremendous victory.” He was pleased that high school students could now “meet together as Christians.” He continued by saying that the law “opened the door wide for students to express their faith, to let students give out tracts, to carry their bibles — and to talk about Jesus and faith.”

What people too easily forget and is demonstrated by the PFA is the fact that the law also provides students the right to create a secular club as opposed to a bible club, to pass out non-tracts instead of tracts, and to carry their favorite Bertrand Russell book in place of a bible.

Yes, the classroom is now yet another evangelical hunting ground, but it is also another forum for the discussion of reason and the development of a choice.

Along with UAB graduate student Chris McDougal, I plan to co-found the first college freethought organization in Alabama (and perhaps the South), the UAB Freethought Society. We plan to be an affiliate of the Campus Freethought Alliance, a new intercollegiate organization headed by Derek Araujo.

Like the PFA, students will have a haven for the discussion of heresy. Like the PFA, we will force the campus to no longer hear only one theology. But the things in the future of the UAB Freethought Society are far beyond the scope of what the PFA could do. I feel certain that this group will not only live out the graduation of its founders, but will also reach and educate more people than I could have ever imagined when I was in high school.

I have great hopes for this fledgling group. Perhaps it will not be the only one of its kind to appear in the South. It may be that we are the precedent that other college students have been looking for. And if not, maybe we will be home to them as well. I know that with Chris’ keen mind, and my unique experience with the PFA, we have the tools to go anywhere. And, God willing [sic], we will.

Now, what is more exciting to end a speech than a call to arms? In this room are people from all over America, people with the opportunity to share these victories elsewhere. Is there a freethought group in your local high school or college? Why not? Why don’t you, or someone you know start one? Don’t be one of those people that constantly thinks, “Oh, someone else will do it.”

This responsibility I charge to you. It will take all of us standing up against the religious invasion of our schools before we can be certain that the thoughts of America’s children will always be free. I’m not saying that it will be easy, but if you succeed you will have given students an opportunity to rise above the bombardment of religion they face, and you will be proud that you did. I know I am.

Adam Butler, is a first-year computer science major at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. He was an award-winning student in the Foundation’s 1996 high school essay competition.

Freedom From Religion Foundation