Student Activist Awards

Paul J. Gaylor Memorial Student Activist Scholarship Awardee Peter Opitz – 2017

Peter Opitz received a $1,000 scholarship from FFRF endowed by Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in memory of her father, Paul J. Gaylor, who was FFRF's most hardworking volunteer for its first 25 years. He died at 84 in 2011.

By Peter Opitz

Expressing your opinion isn't always easy, especially if it's controversial. You're questioned, degraded, debated and judged for what you believe and for what you think is right.

I found this out the hard way in the spring of 2016, when public dissent began rumbling over the so-called Jesus Lunches at Middleton (Wis.) High School. These lunches are organized by parents' groups and are held at the park adjacent to the high school, where they hand out bibles and religious trinkets, and proselytize to students in exchange for a free lunch.

Many atheist, Jewish and Muslim students were forced to sit by themselves at lunch while their Christian friends attended a lunch where evangelical values were preached.

A lot of students felt marginalized in what is supposed to be a safe place for everyone, a place in which students of all religions (and no religion) are respected and not pressured. Eventually, I'd had enough.

It was pretty obvious that the main cause of this marginalization was one thing — the Jesus Lunch. Even after pressuring our school administration, the hate speech and exclusion continued and the school became more and more unsafe for students who weren't Christians.

At this point, the school decided to go public with its disapproval of Jesus Lunch and created a legal briefing that justified its right to enforce school rules on the nearby park property. And then everything erupted. News media rushed in, parents sent hundreds of emails to administration, and the tense emotions in the school could be felt from miles away.

It was at that point when I decided to make my stand — to advocate for inclusivity and safety in our school. I started with a petition and video. It called upon the Jesus Lunch organizers to move their activities away from the school in an attempt to decrease the division, harassment and distraction that the event had caused. The petition spread quickly and soon had hundreds of signatures, prompting organizers of Jesus Lunch to create their own counterpetition.

Phone calls and emails poured in and I found myself in the busiest time of my life, trying to balance school and an unexpected new role of community activist. I worked with my peers to organize a protest that attracted hundreds of students and community members at the next Jesus Lunch.

Nearly half of our 2,000-person high school flooded the park that day for and against Jesus Lunch, all caught on video for the evening news. I gave a speech urging my peers to stand up for students who felt marginalized because of Jesus Lunch. I watched my friends get hit with food, thrown by Jesus Lunch attendees into the crowd of protesters. I witnessed an unprecedented amount of yelling, screaming and shoving. But, most importantly, I saw friendships ripped apart over religion.

FFRF sent letters to the City Council, an eight-page legal memo was drafted by community members that outlined four constitutionally acceptable actions for the city, constituents spoke at meetings with concerns about Jesus Lunch, but nothing worked. Not the petition. Not the protests. Not the legal brief. Not the attention from national media and organizations. We had failed to keep the school a welcoming and respectful place for all people, regardless of religious belief.

It's a year later now, and as I look back on what I did, how hard I tried, I find pride in it. Not in the division that it caused in our school, but in the effort that students made to stand up for each other. To see people from all perspectives — Christian, Jewish, atheist, Muslim, etc. — come together to support each other was one of the most powerful moments I have ever seen.

In the meantime, the Jesus Lunches will continue giving free food and an evangelical message to students every Tuesday, but we will persist. We will continue to stand up for each other and provide a loving, respectful community for innocent students trying to get an education free of religious division.

My name is Peter Opitz and I just concluded my junior year at Middleton High School in Wisconsin. I enjoy the outdoors — hiking, biking, swimming, and working outside. I am dedicated to social justice, and am a member of Student Voice Union and Student Equity Coalition. I am also a student representative on the school district's Partnership for Student Support and Success committee. I am a leader in Model United Nations, the local chapter of National Honor Society, and a member of the Human Rights Week organizing committee. When not involved with those activities, I do stage crew work for theatre productions and am a drum major for the Middleton High School Band.

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