Oregon teen atheist receives FFRF activist award by Shelby Conway

FFRF has named Shelby Conway, 14, Salem, Ore., the recipient of the Cliff Richards Memorial Student Activist Award for bravely standing up to a proselytizing Christian youth pastor at her school, which resulted in positive changes to school district policies.

By Shelby Conway

On Oct. 23, a youth pastor approached my lunch table at Straub Middle School. He began speaking to us, and I realized he was discussing religion. I expected him to stop, but he did not and asked my friends and me about our personal religious beliefs. A few people, myself included, replied that we were atheists, and he did not like that. He began explaining why it’s a “bad thing” to be an atheist and used words such as “evil” and “wrong” to describe it. He also went into detail about what would happen to us if we were not Christians, which made me extremely uncomfortable.

When I asked him to stop, he did not, and I could see that a few of my friends were also uncomfortable, especially when he began asking for our reasoning behind our religious beliefs. Finally, the lunch bell rang and he left.

After school, I wrote an email to my principal, Laura Perez. The next day, along with a couple students from my lunch table, I was called to speak to her. At right is the email I sent:

After my email was sent, our school district made changes in order to benefit all religious groups and minorities. Following that, our local newspaper did an article about the incident in which they interviewed me and a close friend who was also at the table.

After the article ran on Oct. 31, there were varying responses. Some people were very supportive and caring, which I appreciated very much. However, there were several people who viewed my actions as an overreaction, and were very adamant that they disapproved. Either way, I am very happy with the outcome, and appreciative of how the school district handled the situation. The Statesman Journal reported Nov. 1 that the proselytizer was Tim Saffeels, director of student ministries at Salem Heights Church. Principal Laura Perez said Saffeels will not be allowed back as a volunteer for the rest of the school year. 

“I decided that I’m not going to allow him in because to me there was a breach of trust there,” Perez said.

Shelby Conway sent this email to her middle-school principal.

Dear Mrs. Perez,

My name is Shelby Conway, I am 14 years old and an eighth grader at Straub. Today at lunch, a youth pastor who said he was from a Christian church out in South Salem approached our table. He then proceeded to preach to our entire table, several of whom are not Christians. When he finished, he asked us for our religious beliefs. I replied that I am an atheist, which I am, and I am very firm in my beliefs, and that he should not try to convince me otherwise.

He began insulting me, my beliefs and my intelligence, saying that, “Any logical person would see that atheism is wrong” and telling me that I am “too young” to choose this belief and saying that he believes I am simply trying to “rebel.” I explained that it was quite the opposite, that I find religion itself illogical. He got upset here and started telling me that my belief was “bad,” “stupid” and “evil” and that I was as well.

I was already quite upset, so I told him to “leave me alone” and he simply continued, telling me that I needed to come to a church function to “cleanse my mind and soul of evil” and gave me a card for his youth group, which I promptly got rid of. I know there were other things he said, but some were not direct, and I don`t remember exact quotes.

I have no problem with religion, and I respect all peoples’ beliefs, even if they aren`t like mine. Some of my best friends are very strong Christians, and I have no problem with it. However, I am very willing to defend others and myself when they`re insulted, which they were. I was very uncomfortable and personally offended with the way he was speaking to both me and other non-Christians around the lunchroom.

I request that we keep things like this, such as pastors and religious speeches, in places where they are welcomed, such as churches or religious schools. It offends me, and several other non-Christians, that it was assumed that we were both a small minority and unintelligent and easily convinced. There is a wide array of religious beliefs here at Straub, and we should not assume that all people believe the same.

The man refused to offer his name, but I assume that there is a way to contact him. I`m fairly certain that he was here because he was welcomed by the school. I ask that he does not return.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration,

Shelby Conway

Freedom From Religion Foundation