Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

Student activist award: State/church separation fight has been stressful

Vol. 35 No. 5 June/July 2018

Daniel Roe (not his real name) received FFRF’s $2,000 Thomas Jefferson Student Activist Award, endowed by a generous couple in the Northwest who prefer anonymity.

By Daniel Roe

There comes a moment in every person’s life when they have to make the choice to stand up for what they believe in — that moment when a thought turns into action. If we don’t align our actions with our thoughts, then our actions are empty and our thoughts are worthless.

Standing up and standing out for what I believed in seemed like a distant, unreachable goal. I have always been passionate and opinionated, but the thought of being alone in my actions was reason enough to justify remaining silent at the time. That fear of loneliness kept me from opening up about myself and speaking out against all of the injustice I saw. However, as I grew in age, I also grew in knowledge and courage. I started to fully accept the idea that I didn’t believe in God after years of religious conflict and pretending to believe for the sake of my loved ones. Over the course of the summer before my sophomore year in high school, I researched a lot and realized the importance of upholding my rights as an atheist and protecting the Constitution. Reading story after story about people’s hard experiences fighting for state/church separation made me realize that freedom doesn’t come easy. That would be one of many discoveries throughout the year being involved in a conflict that I never imagined being a part of.

At the beginning of the year, I paid more attention to my school environment than I had previously. Despite the large crowds and my tight schedule, I noticed a large number of historical documents collectively framed together in one of our main hallways. As I looked at the displays, I saw a Ten Commandments plaque in the middle of it. At first, I felt surprised by its presence and eventually grew upset with the fact that my public school was promoting a religious display. My school was illegally promoting Christianity by displaying such a plaque on the wall and I knew that I had to do something. So, after much discussion with friends, I contacted my principal. I received a response that showed me that this was an issue going on throughout most schools in my district. I knew I could only do so much by myself and that’s why I contacted FFRF. After many email exchanges with the legal team, FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott sent a nice letter of complaint to the school board’s attorney for the board to address. This led to several months of painful waiting, public backlash and personal conflict.

The reaction on social media was largely negative. People were calling FFRF and atheists evil, stupid, oversensitive, overly offended, and the used the bible to defend the plaques. Numerous citizens at board meetings justified the plaques by referring to the importance of Christian morals in schools. In one case, a friend, who I told about my complaint, betrayed me and told dozens of people about it after she got mad at me. This led to several people making rude comments, cutting me off from them, and one girl yelling, for everyone to hear, about how bad a person I was. Additionally, I received pushback from my family. My parents got nervous with the whole situation and said they didn’t want me involved in this controversy anymore. They told me that we were living in the Bible Belt and that messing with religion was the worst thing I could do.

The situation caused me to feel lonely and like I had no one to turn to for support. Even worse, on my birthday, hundreds of local citizens rallied at the board meeting for the board’s deciding the fate of the plaques. After endless public comments and unnecessary drama, the Cumberland County Board of Education voted 6-3 to keep the plaques up in the schools. I felt like a lone outsider in a community that was supposed to be for everyone.

In the aftermath of the decision, I turned to support of the local atheists and secularists around me. They understood my feelings, encouraged me to keep the issue ongoing, and inspired me to fight even harder for separation of church and state. Thankfully, I took their advice and continued to address issues as I observed them in my area.

The issue of the Ten Commandments in the local schools is still an ongoing issue that I want to further pursue. Besides that, I resolved an issue involving a teacher preaching in her class after a letter of complaint by FFRF was sent out. I have also complained about issues involving my representative promoting religion, religious displays in our school library, school endorsements of baccalaureate services, and other violations as they come up.

All of this proves time and time again why the separation of church and state should be valued. It prevents the government from having a religious preference and makes the government take a neutral position. Ultimately, this governmental neutrality upholds our country’s long history of religious freedom for all people. Therefore, it is so important for everyone to start speaking out and turning our thoughts into actions so everyone can be equal and free.”

Daniel, 17, from Tennessee, enjoys music, history, reading and the outdoors. He would like to work in human services and help defend civil liberties.