Virginia woman honored for contesting school religion

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s “first commandment” is honor the constitutionally mandated separation of state and church. To that end, FFRF needs cooperation from citizens like Sarah McNair, who is the 2011 recipient of its Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award, which includes a $1,000 scholarship. The award honors students and youth who show special courage or dedication in speaking out to defend secularism or promote freethought.

McNair, now a married 23-year-old student who lives in northern Virginia, began speaking out officially in 2004. She wrote letters of complaint to state officials about the Ten Commandments placed on the walls at Giles County High School in Pearisburg, Va. She received responses dismissing her concerns that students’ rights were being violated. She kept copies of all the correspondence.

McNair, who was raised as a Unitarian Universalist and moved to Giles County as a 10th grader, remembers her shock at hearing the morning announcement, “Have a nice day and God bless,” she told the Roanoke Times in January. “At the time. I didn’t want to be blessed by God. Why do they say that to everyone? What about the people who don’t want to start out their day with religion?

“I really strongly wanted to make the school religiously neutral, so the school would speak out for all its students, not just religious students,” she said. After she objected to the principal, it stopped but only temporarily.

“The state didn’t do their homework, and they passed it back to the school board,” First Amendment scholar Charles Haynes told the paper about McNair’s complaints. “What they should have done is looked more closely at it and had a discussion with the school board to look more closely at it.”

After FFRF complained to Giles County Schools in December on behalf of a local resident who objected to the Ten Commandments hanging in a middle school hallway, McNair contacted FFRF to express her support.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It’s a pity that Giles County Schools and state education officials didn’t listen to Sarah when she complained many years ago. It really takes guts and savvy for a young student to lodge a complaint about an Establishment Clause violation at her school.

“Sarah put her letter of protest into writing, did not back down when the school district didn’t listen, and attempted to remedy the violation by alerting state officials. We are really impressed with her activism.”

Gaylor also praised McNair’s willingness to speak publicly against the Commandments displays to local and national media, including “Nick News” on Nickelodeon, which has a large youth audience.

Foundation Co-President Dan Barker acknowledged the West Coast couple who annually endow FFRF’s youth activist award.

Freedom From Religion Foundation