Student Activist Awards

Matthew Nielson - Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award – 2012

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.

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