If a public school district publishes a list of all the college scholarships students can apply for, including those from religious organizations, do they have the right to exclude scholarships offered by atheist groups?
That’s what the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Antelope Valley Freethinkers want to know since the Antelope Valley Union High School District has shut them out.
The Antelope Valley Union High School District distributes lists of scholarship opportunities to district students, but for the past two years the district has refused to publish scholarship opportunities offered by FFRF and the Antelope Valley Freethinkers.
The Freethinkers’ scholarship asked college-bound seniors to write essays on the topic, “Being a young freethinker in Antelope Valley,” with a total award money of $1,750. FFRF’s rejected essay competition for college-bound high school seniors (with more than $7,500 in cash prizes) offered students a chance to write on the topic of “Young, bold and nonbelieving: Challenges of being a nonbeliever of color” or “Why I’m Good Without God: Challenges of being a young nonbeliever.”
The district said it was rejecting the scholarships because the essay announcements would upset parents, claiming that they that they appeared to “promote anti-religious expression” and had “aggressive” and “argumentative undertones towards religion.” Offers to modify the wording were rejected.
To be sure, unless the very definition of being an atheist or the struggles young atheists face are offensive to you, there’s nothing problematic in the writing prompts.
Just look at what the Antelope Valley Freethinkers wanted students to do:
A freethinker is someone who develops opinions based on science and reason in contrast to faith and dogma. Write from a personal perspective encounters you’ve had when you object to or raise logical- or evidence-based challenges to statements of faith or dogma within your family, your school, or the Antelope Valley at large. Perhaps you’ve been ridiculed, harassed, or punished for speaking up against religion in the classroom, at school events, in government, or within your family. Perhaps you’ve been successful in convincing others of your position. Discuss the effects on you and those around you as you’ve dealt with these encounters.
What part of that says, “Hey, kids! Whoever bashes religion the most gets cash”?
FFRF had two separate prompts for students:
“Young, bold and nonbelieving: Challenges of being a nonbeliever of
Write from personal perspective about experiences or challenges you face, as a nonbeliever in a religious family or community, and minority within the freethought community. Are there obstacles discouraging diversity within the movement? What do you think could be done to make freethought and nonbelief more attractive to America’s nonwhite communities? Include at least one paragraph about why you are a nonbeliever.
“Why I’m Good Without God: Challenges of being a young nonbeliever”
Write from personal perspective about your experiences or challenges in the face of persistent stereotypes that atheists and other nonbelievers are not moral. Explain how you’re “good without God,” why religion is not necessary for morality and may even be counterproductive. What can you or others do to counter negative stereotypes about nonbelievers? Include at least one paragraph about why you are a nonbeliever.
I’m still trying to understand which parts of those prompts were too “aggressive” and “argumentative” toward religion. Who knew explaining why you have morals and ethics without religion is too mean to God?
It just goes to show you: For some religious people, our very existence is a form of persecution against them.
Meanwhile, the atheist groups pointed out a number of scholarships offered by the District that had religious components to them:
In just one example, The Quartz Hill High School Scholarship Bulletin for December-January 2015-2016 lists the “Playing with Purpose Award,” which requires the applicant to write “at least one paragraph… describing how and when you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior and what your present relationship with Him means to you.”
There are also scholarships that ask students to list their “Jewish connection,” the National Rifle Association’s essay scholarship (“What does the Second
Amendment mean to you?”), and one named after Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard. Another requires students to be members in a Catholic organization.
So scholarships involving religion aren’t a problem. It’s only a problem when atheists want to be included in the list and want students to write (in part) about why they’re atheists.
That’s why the atheists are suing.
The school district’s censorship of Antelope Valley Freethinkers and FFRF is government suppression of free speech in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, FFRF asserts. The district censored FFRF and the Antelope Valley Freethinkers’ speech because their message is nonreligious, critical of religion and controversial.
By the way, the Antelope Valley Freethinkers offered to reword their scholarship prompt — even though there was nothing wrong with the original — but the District wouldn’t have it.
Let’s hope a judge agrees. There’s no reason students shouldn’t be made aware of scholarships from atheist groups. The only people this discriminatory policy hurts are the kids who might miss out on thousands of dollars because their administrators are cowards.
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