Nicole M. Jacobsen – Paul J. Gaylor Memorial Student Activist Award

jacobsen nicoleNicole Jacobsen lives in Iowa and is completing her studies toward certification as a pharmacy technician. The case she writes so eloquently about is John Doe, Mary Roe and the Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Rhea County School District, which was filed in federal court in 2001. Nashville attorney Alvin Harris, an FFRF Life Member, ably represented the plaintiffs’ challenge of K-5 religious instruction for 30 minutes a week in three public schools during school hours by bible students from Bryan College (motto: “Christ Above All”). It was chartered in 1925 in Dayton after the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” to memorialize William Jennings Bryan, the lead attorney arguing against the teaching of evolution.

Judge R. Allan Edgar ruled for the plaintiffs in 2002, writing “This is not a close case.” His decision was upheld in 2004 by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

In April of 2001, A. Roe was 10 years old. Living in Dayton, Tenn., she was faced by very few challenges in her life other than weekly spelling homework or the panic of making it home before the inevitable flicker of streetlights. In elementary school, A. Roe and her younger sister B. were taught many substantial life lessons: how to tie their shoes, to share with others, and once each week before recess, they learned how to accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. Impressionable as they were young, A. and B. brought home many of these lessons.

A. would pray to God every night that her peers would stop bullying her because of the Native American heritage that made her skin a little darker. During bubble baths, B. sang the catchy tunes she learned in school, her sweet voice singing, “Our God is an awesome God — he reigns from Heaven above.” The “Bible Education Ministry” classes that I sat through every Wednesday in my public school were in blatant disregard of my First Amendment rights, and as those laws were much beyond my understanding at that age, my parents sought justice for me and my siblings. I learned about Doe v. Porter, the lawsuit my parents eventually filed against the school board with help from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, not from my parents but from my peers on the playground. The moniker “A. Roe” was used to represent me in court, as well as to hide my identity to protect me from the Christian majority that was our God-fearing community.

Unfortunately for that little girl, her name was also her curse. Unbeknownst to my mother and father, my classmates were very much aware of my identity. While I was brought up to keep my mind open and my heart considerate, it seemed to me at the time that some of my peers were raised to believe that people who didn’t attend church and believe in God were sinners, and I was no exception. Just as my parents kept their lawsuit a secret from me to keep me safe, I kept from them the parts of my school day that involved my hair being pulled and my fingers being shut between locker doors. Girls who I thought were my friends called me names I wouldn’t repeat even at my age now.

While school board members and religious activists bashed my parents’ character in the local newspaper, their offspring exiled me with the same blind rage to the other end of an empty cafeteria. A. Roe was alone for bigger reasons than she thought she would ever understand. The fact that she was bullied daily to such a terrifying level over such grown-up issues was incomprehensible to her at the time. In 2004 my parents moved our family to Boone, Iowa, and eventually won the lawsuit for the amount of a single dollar bill. While I was occasionally made fun of for having braces, or blushing at the sight of a high school crush, it was nothing compared to the relief I felt by being able to finally identify myself openly as belonging to an atheist household without judgment. I celebrated my 22nd birthday in February as Nicole M. Jacobsen — A. Roe a distant memory.

However, when our family friend Dan Barker asked me to tell my story, it felt like it was just yesterday that I cried in a bathroom stall over religious intolerance I didn’t understand. I don’t condemn the wonderful people of my hometown or those who treated me poorly in the past. It’s quite the opposite; their memory has helped me grow as a person. I still keep in contact with some of those old classmates to this day, and it’s just another reminder to me that there is no right or wrong when it comes to religion. Peace is truly found in acceptance and tolerance of another, no matter what their beliefs.

Freedom From Religion Foundation