It can take a lot of guts to stand up for separation of church and state in America. People who file lawsuits to stop the display of religious symbols on public property or the use of sectarian prayers before government meetings often find themselves the targets of harassment, threats, and even violence.
Adults can usually withstand the pressure. But imagine fighting a pitched church-state battle when you’re a teenager in high school.
The high school years are a period when many young people just want to fit in with peers or keep a low profile. When separation of church and state is violated in a public school, students are the ones most affected. They’re the ones who have to stand up and make it right. It’s not always easy.
Here are five young people who made a difference.
1. Zack Kopplin: Zack Kopplin is a one-man war against the teaching of bad science in Louisiana. Zack was a high school student in Baton Rogue when he started to speak out against a measure legislators passed in 2008 to sneak creationist materials into schools through the backdoor.
Zack began lobbying for repeal of the so-called “Louisiana Science Act” (which is misnamed because it doesn’t actually promote science) and lined up 43 Nobel laureates to endorse a repeal of the law. He also worked with state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) to introduce legislation repealing the law.
The repeal hasn’t passed yet, but Kopplin, who is 19 and now a student at Rice University in Houston, continues to work on the issue. He has led rallies calling for repeal and lobbies national science organizations, urging them to avoid holding conferences in Louisiana until the law is overturned. (The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology has already done so, shifting its conference from New Orleans to Salt Lake City.) He also captured national headlines by blowing the whistle on the teaching of creationism in private school in Louisiana that receive taxpayer funding through a voucher program.
In addition, Kopplin successfully lobbied the New Orleans City Council to support repeal of the law. In May, the council voted unanimously in favor of supporting repeal. A group of religious leaders called the Clergy Letter Project has also endorsed the call.
Along the way, Kopplin has become an effective spokesperson for the cause of sound science instruction in public schools. He has delivered speeches and appeared on national news programs to discuss the issue. In early March, he was interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS.
2. Jessica Ahlquist: In 2011, high school junior Jessica Ahlquist protested the posting of a banner listing an official school prayer in the auditorium of Cranston High School West in Rhode Island.
The banner had been hanging there since 1963 – ironically, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down official programs of prayer and Bible reading in public schools in a famous case called Abington Township v. Schempp.
Officials at the school refused to remove the banner, so Ahlquist contacted the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU sued on her behalf, and she won. In the ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux praised Ahlquist for having the courage to take on the case at the tender age of 16.
Unfortunately, many members of the community didn’t agree. Ahlquist was subjected to a torrent of abuse. A Twitter user said “this girl honestly needs to be punched in the face,” and an anonymous commenter posted Ahlquist’s home address on the Providence Journal's website. She received numerous death threats and was shadowed by police for a time at school. Ahlquist was even blasted by the 1970s rock star Meatloaf, who cited her as an example of why “the world’s gone to hell in a handbasket.”
Remarkably, Ahlquist was also attacked by a state politician. State Rep. Peter Polombo called her “an evil little thing,” a “clapping seal” and a “pawn star” on a talk radio show. Things got so out of hand that when the Freedom From Religion Foundation tried to send flowers to Ahlquist, it couldn’t find a local florist willing to deliver to her house.
The good news is that school officials decided not to appeal the ruling, and the banner was removed. Ahlquist is currently finishing up her senior year studying at home. This fall, when she goes to college, she’ll have fewer worries about money. An atheist blogger, Hemant Mehta, launched a scholarship fund for her. More than $44,000 was collected.
3. Krystal Myers: High school senior Krystal Myers knew something wasn’t right at Lenoir City High School in Tennessee. There was simply too much religion in the school.
Myers made note of a litany of abuses: sectarian prayers at graduation ceremonies, coercive prayer at football games, teachers wearing clothing with religious imagery, lunchtime visits by ministers, distribution of Christian material during the school day and prayers opening school board meetings.
As editor of her school newspaper, Panther Press, Myers believed she was in a position to highlight these abuses and bring about change. She penned a column explaining what it felt like to be an atheist in such an environment.
“I have realized that I feel that my rights as an atheist are severely limited when compared to other students who are Christians,” Myers wrote. “Why do Christians have special rights not allowed to nonbelievers?”
The column never made it into Panther Press. The school’s principal pulled it, asserting the piece might cause disruptions at the school. The Knoxville News-Sentinel had no such worries, however, and ran Myers’ article on Feb. 26, 2012.
Myers’ willingness to speak out sparked action from Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Attorneys at Americans United wrote to school officials and demanded that they stop the unconstitutional activities. The Lenoir City Board of Education subsequently announced that it would suspend prayer before meetings and would also end the practice of allowing public prayers before high school football games. (The other matters were referred to the school’s attorney.)
Some in the community lashed out against Myers. In an online forum for Lenoir City residents, a comment thread titled “Krystal Myers should be Excommunicated from the City and County” sprung up. One anonymous commenter asserted, “We need to rise up and Kick (sic) devil worshiping, drama loving, Krystal Myers out of town.”
Not long after that, hundreds of people gathered to pray on the Loudon County courthouse lawn, calling for school prayer. Some carried signs that read: “He stood for us. We stand for him,” and “It’s freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”
Myers graduated and is now studying journalism at the University of Tennessee.
4. Corwyn Schulz: By the time he was a high school senior, Corwyn Schulz had had enough. Corwyn, who attended Medina Valley High School in Castroville, Texas, endured Christian invocations at school events, prayers led by coaches, religious posters on school walls and other school-sponsored forms of religion.
As Corwyn prepared to graduate, he decided to fight back. With legal firepower provided by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Corwyn and his family filed a lawsuit to block school-sponsored prayer during the commencement ceremony.
A flurry of legal activity resulted in an initial win for Corwyn, when a federal court blocked the prayer. An appeals court overturned that ruling, however. Corwyn and his family could sense strong hostility in the community and decided not to attend the commencement.
Although the Schulz family lost the skirmish over graduation prayer, they won the larger battle. The lawsuit continued, and after more than six months of litigation, school officials agreed to work on settling the case out of court.
Under the terms of the settlement, district officials, administrators, teachers, staff and other employees cannot initiate, solicit or direct prayers, nor can they join students in prayers, proselytize or invite others to engage in worship activities of this type.
In addition, the school district agreed to stop displaying crosses, religious images, religious quotations, Bibles or religious texts or other religious icons or artifacts on the walls, hallways and other common areas at the school. The district said it would no longer invite speakers who might proselytize during school events.
Finally, school officials altered the student handbook to add a section on students’ rights to religious freedom and offer special training on church-state separation to all district personnel who work with students.
There was an interesting postscript to the case: After the settlement was announced, Superintendent James Stansberry called the lawsuit a “witch hunt” and made untrue allegations about it. At the same time, Keith Riley, the band director, accused Corwyn of making “lies and false allegations.”
U.S. District Judge Fred Biery held that these comments were in violation of the settlement decree and ordered Stansberry and Riley to apologize to the Schulz family.
5. Mark Reyes: The small town of Poteet, Texas, had a tradition of including a lot of religion in its high school graduation ceremonies – often Christian. Students were expected to compose and deliver prayers during the event. In fact, they were told to submit their prayers in advance for review by the principal.
Mark Reyes, who was valedictorian in 2012, discovered that two of the students who were expected to deliver prayer weren’t comfortable doing so, and he decided to challenge the practice. There was no way Reyes could have done this anonymously – there were only about 100 kids in his graduating class.
Reyes began researching separation of church and state issues and contacted Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which wrote letters to school officials advising them that they could not compel students to write and deliver prayers. In response, the school officials told Reyes that if any students didn’t want to offer a prayer, the school would find someone else to do it. Americans United had to write to the school again and tell the officials that this only made things worse.
Local media reported that when word of Reyes’ protest became public, an uproar ensued. Reyes subsequently appeared on CNN and Fox News to explain his point of view. Despite the anger in the community, the graduation ceremony went off without coerced prayer. Reyes went on to Texas Tech University to study computer science.
These are just five examples. Lots of young people stand up against Christian fundamentalism intrusions into public schools and never make the national media. Activists who have been defending the separation of church and state for a long time sometimes wonder if a new generation will rise up to carry the torch. It seems there’s no need to worry. They are well on the way.