A Florida Teenager’s Account of Atheist Literature Distribution in Public Schools

This is a guest post by Daniel Koster. Daniel is the President of the Wekiva Atheist and Secular Alliance at Wekiva High School in Florida.

This post is in response to a recent distribution of atheist literature at several Orange County high schools.

***

About three months ago, a Christian group distributed Bibles at eleven Orange County schools. They were given permission to do this under the condition that they leave the tables unattended and that their volunteers have no interaction with students. While they were at my school, Wekiva High, I documented them breaking both of these rules (see image below). The Freedom From Religion Foundation has been dealing with the School Board attorneys on this issue.

The Christian group’s table at Wekiva High School (Daniel Koster)

But that’s in the past. Let’s get to the local secular movement’s inspiring response.

The Central Florida Freethought Community, under the direction of David Williamson, organized a distribution of their own. We would, using the same legal and bureaucratic channels, bring non-tracts, pamphlets, and godless books into those same eleven schools. We were going to show the Orange County School Board that to open the otherwise secure gates of our schools to outside interests is to relinquish their power to the select few who march in. Their delayed approval and censorship of our materials showed they were none too happy about the arrival of our godless legion, especially on the National Day of Prayer. (Which is also the National Day of Reason.)

Indeed, some of the materials we asked permission to distribute were rejected. The observant reader will no doubt have perceived the irony of any material being censored by the same body that deemed the death-and-rape-laden Word of God school-appropriate. In any case, the volunteers from outside groups were required to distribute only approved materials and have no contact with students… at least, that’s what would have happened had they come to my school, Wekiva High. They didn’t need to because my group (the Wekiva Atheist and Secular Alliance) held our own independent distribution and the School Board and school administrators knew this. Because we were not distributing literature in conjunction with the other groups, we should have been able to distribute whatever materials (within reason) we wanted — because we were not an outside group, the school board didn’t need to approve them first — and we should have been allowed to talk to students as we did it. The plan was perfect. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

Now before I tell you what went wrong, I’d like to establish that, for now, I give the administration at my school the benefit of the doubt. It is nonetheless frustrating when we were told in the middle of setting up our table that we were expected to follow the same rules set for outside volunteers. We were told by the administration that we could not staff the tables and that we could only distribute materials on the outside groups’ approved list. During the time when we’d hoped to be distributing, we tried to explain to administrators and later to our principal that because we were not outside volunteers those rules did not apply to us. Still, they insisted that the materials be removed, but that we were free to try the distribution again a different day, one that would not be seen as part of the CFFC’s larger distribution campaign. This of course raises the question: Where was this level of oversight and caution when Christian volunteers sat in the very same cafeteria and discussed the importance of Jesus with students?

So like good little activists we did the best we could. Only two of the pamphlets we had ordered coincided with the approved list, so we put those out on the table and stepped away. This was halfway through lunch, so not many were taken.

A lack of communication and a fear of the law put the damper on Wekiva’s distribution. But I ask you not to lose sight of the wildly successful demonstrations at the many other schools. David Silverman, President of American Atheists, who came down all the way from New Jersey just for this, reported having a smashing time setting up at Cyprus Creek High School. Dan Barker, co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, came down from Wisconsin to help and stayed long enough to play a few songs at the after-party (because everything worth doing has an after-party). FFRF worked behind the scenes to ensure this distribution was done right.

David Williamson also worked tirelessly to ensure that dozens of atheists were successfully organized toward a common goal: Encouraging the School Board to change the policy allowing outside groups to come into schools to proselytize to students. The media covered us extensively which assuredly means the School Board took notice. We might have been exactly what the School Board needed to realize that the current policy might be worth reconsidering.

I know I had fun taking a stand for equality, and I recommend it to other students across the country.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/noah.stewart.908 Noah Stewart

    Well done Daniel!! It is fun taking a stand with your friends, isn’t it? I’m sure the experience will serve you well in the future.

  • Raoul Duke Jr

    Great job and keep up the good work. We are very proud of you and those who helped.

  • koseighty

    Well Done Daniel!

    Thanks for a well written and informative report. But thanks even more for taking up the cause and pressing forward with it.

  • JWH

    It is a little disheartening. I would argue that especially at the high school level, students from in-house student orgs should be free to man their tables and interact with other students, etc., etc. when running these things during lunch.

    There’s a difference, after all, between “Hi, I’m Mr. Smith from a group outside your school and I’m here to tell you why you should/should not believe in a god” versus “Hi, I’m Judy. We’re in social studies together, and I want to tell you why you should/should not believe in a god.”

  • http://twitter.com/tjadlow Trey Jadlow

    Hi Daniel, thanks for the update.
    I was wondering, do either you or Mr. Mehta have any idea as to why someone would not want to give you access on par with religionists?

    • Yoav

      The reason is obvious, they know that the only way to preserve the jesus myth is to make sure kids are not exposed to any information that wasn’t sterilized of any trace of questioning it’s validity.

      • http://twitter.com/tjadlow Trey Jadlow

        Hi Yoav,
        I think you are right to a certain degree, but I’d like to take it a bit further. May I ask, are you familiar with the term meta-narrative?

    • Matt Delemos

      Simple. Because obedience is more important to them than truth.

      • http://twitter.com/tjadlow Trey Jadlow

        Hi Matt,

        What is truth?

        • playonwords

          Hi, Trey! “What is truth?” is a question a certain Judean prophet could not answer.

          So, in addition to not understanding ethics and assuming that morality cannot have a rational foundation, you do not read your Bible.

          Oh, and while we’re there, does God have to obey the moral rules he sets us?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Well written, and well done, Daniel. I’m impressed with you, your atheist group, and the students at the other schools. Your generation gives me great hope. Your school administrators were clearly using a double standard, and it seems to be solely out of cowardice. I think they don’t want a free and equal exchange of ideas that might challenge their pet religion, because they don’t feel confident that it can stand up to honest scrutiny.

    Persevere!

    • http://twitter.com/tjadlow Trey Jadlow

      Hi Richard,
      May I ask why you say Daniel’s generation gives you great hope?

      • cary_w

        I’m not Richard, but I also see a lot of hope in the millennial generation. What impresses me most about them is exactly what kids like Daniel typify. I see in them a great deal of tolerance and acceptance of people who are “different” and a strong desire to treat everyone as equals. I also see an unwillingness to continue the bigotry and prejudices that have plagued past generations. They are more inclined to rely on logic and reason, rather than religious teachings, to come up with the moral codes they live by. This generation barely even see “race” as anything even worth noting and has allways seen gay marriage as normal. I think the world will be a better place once they grow up and start taking over the leadership positions in this country.

        • http://twitter.com/tjadlow Trey Jadlow

          Hi Cary,
          >I see in them a great deal of tolerance and acceptance of people who are “different” and a strong desire to treat everyone as equals.

          Do you think ‘tolerance’ has any boundaries?

          >I also see an unwillingness to continue the bigotry and prejudices that have plagued past generations.

          Are you saying that bigotry is ‘sinful’?

          >They are more inclined to rely on logic and reason, rather than religious teachings, to come up with the moral codes they live by.

          Would you please explain the relationship to logic and moral code?

          >This generation barely even see “race” as anything even worth noting and has allways seen gay marriage as normal. I think the world will be a better place once they grow up and start taking over the leadership positions in this country.

          You seem to think that those who disagree with you are committing a moral transgression. Would that be fair?

          • cary_w

            “Do you think tolerance has boundaries?”
            Yes, obviously tolerance of different lifestyles and beliefs end when those beliefs cross the line into abuse and causing actual physical harm. A child being raised by two loving moms is not being harmed in any way and no one is being harmed in any way by the existence of this family, therefore we should all be tolerant of them, even if we don’t “agree” with their lifestye for some reason.

            “Is bigotry sinful?”
            As an athiest, I don’t believe in the concept of sin. But if you mean, “do I believe bigotry is wrong or immoral?”, then the answer is yes.

            The relationship between logic and moral code:
            What I was trying to say was that I believe the moral codes we live by (such as,”don’t kill people”, “be kind to others”, “obey the laws of the land”, “pay your fair share”, etc.) are more meaningful and more likely to be followed when we arrive at them through logic (I shouldn’t kill people because it is wrong to end a human life and I don’t want people to kill me) rather than from a very confusing book that contradicts itself, is full of obvious fiction and often gives no reason for the rules it states (“thou shall not kill.”).

            You seem to think that those who disagree with you are committing a moral transgression. Would that be fair?

            I’m a bit confused by what you mean here. Where did I ever even say anything about people who disagree with me? I was explaining the hope and promise I see in today’s younger generation, not condemning those who disagree with me. Unless you mean that I think those who are racist and prejudice are committing a moral transgression, then I suppose I would have to say you are right.

            • http://twitter.com/tjadlow Trey Jadlow

              >”Do you think tolerance has boundaries?”
              Yes, obviously tolerance of different lifestyles and beliefs end when those beliefs cross the line into abuse and causing actual physical harm. A child being raised by two loving moms is not being harmed in any way and no one is being harmed in any way by the existence of this family, therefore we should all be tolerant of them, even if we don’t “agree” with their lifestye for some reason.

              Excellent. You are positing an objective moral value, based on the sanctity of human life. Would you mind justifying (rationally) such?

              >”Is bigotry sinful?”
              As an athiest, I don’t believe in the concept of sin. But if you mean, “do I believe bigotry is wrong or immoral?”, then the answer is yes.

              The reason I use the term ‘sinful’ is to rib you guys a bit. My term and your term are really indistinguishable in the practical sense. Please, would you tell me [why] bigotry is immoral?

              >The relationship between logic and moral code:
              What I was trying to say was that I believe the moral codes we live by (such as,”don’t kill people”, “be kind to others”, “obey the laws of the land”, “pay your fair share”, etc.) are more meaningful and more likely to be followed when we arrive at them through logic (I shouldn’t kill people because it is wrong to end a human life and I don’t want people to kill me) rather than from a very confusing book that contradicts itself, is full of obvious fiction and often gives no reason for the rules it states (“thou shall not kill.”).

              So you agree to objective morality. Please justify and be logical:)

              >I’m a bit confused by what you mean here. Where did I ever even say anything about people who disagree with me?

              Aren’t you giving a moral imperative?!

              • sniff

                Trey, if you are genuinely curious, then I would suggest doing some reading. Your conflation of cosmic morality and social morality is confused. Further, the path you are leading the discussion down implies that there is a cosmic objective morality out there – presumably in a religious text. One that individuals like yourself then translate, interpret, apply to satisfy your own presuppostions – like having long hair (mixed), getting tattoos (typically followed), eating shellfish and swine (typically ignored), proactively divesting yourself of wealth for the poor (broadly ignored), and gay marriage (typically followed) – and then broadly state that an objective morality has been communicated. When in reality, it is just a capricious, divided, ancient, foreign text that is appropriated by individuals (when it by its own record was given to a group) to say what they want it to say.

                But, if I misread your “curiosity”, google is an amazing thing (invented by an atheist) and will lead you to interesting things like this: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/secularism_and_humanist_morality/

                Happy hunting!

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

        because this blog exists. because not a few younger than me people read it. because no one is trying to fire Hemant, a famous and popular atheist. because ratings for the bible channel “history” story still won’t come close to the number of people who think Star Wars is the shizzle. because a president of america has a “muslim sounding” name. because more and more, lynching the different is no longer acceptable in america. because… i believe in hope based on fact and history and science, and a lot of other people are too, these days.

        • http://twitter.com/tjadlow Trey Jadlow

          Hi Chicago,

          >because this blog exists. because not a few younger than me people read it.

          Hmmm. Would you consider yourself a thoughtful person?

  • DAK

    As a former high school teacher, I can add that school administrators live in the unenviable world of trying to be all things to all people. They really can’t help it as that is what schools have become mandated to be. Not that it’s an unworthy cause, just a very difficult one to achieve due to the multitude of forces competing for the top spot on any given day.
    So, rather than taking the much easier route of protecting and nurturing the well-being and growth of the students, it becomes an exercise in bowing-down to all the outside pressures that push in on them all the time. It’s an endless dance of not wanting to ruffle feathers, but then looking around and realizing everyone’s feathers are ruffled. Today’s schools are as rudderless as any public entity. Too bad as this could have been a success story for the personal growth of all students and the community. OCPS was handed a hot potato and, after a couple months of juggling it, allowed it splatter on the ground so no one was really able to be nourished by it. . . figures.
    Now, as the parent of one amazingly bright, dedicated, principled, and energetic high school senior and blog author, I say. . . CONGRATS Daniel! I’m very proud of you and how you share your values with the world!

  • randall.morrison90

    Literature distribution? Restrictions? What a joke; Christians AND atheists should be able to distribute whatever they want if it is actually a student group.

    • cary_w

      But only if it’s a school group. The bible distributors were not a school group, but an outside group trying to get their bibles out to a captive student audience. Outside groups should not be allowed to distribute anything to students!

      Kudos to Daniel and his friends for standing up against the bible pushers and showing the school board that once they let one outside group into the schools they have opened the floodgates and will be forced to let in the groups they don’t agree with! Hopefully they will eventually see the light and keep all outside groups out. But in the meantime we can allways hope that Daniel and his friends have helped some of their fellow students find acceptance, tolerance and new friendships.

  • YolyK

    Excellent job and great blog Daniel. You are such a bright and empathetic young man. Congratulations and thank you for giving others a good reason to apply reason in the everyday. Keep doing the great job, your school, Florida and the USA need more people like you and know you are not alone. :)

  • Bill H

    http://www.wftv.com/news/news/local/pamphlets-atheism-be-available-11-orange-county-sc/nXdpn/

    If asking for donations, I can see why the school would ban the materials. Most schools ban non-school organizations from seeking donations.

  • edb3803

    Thanks for the update, Daniel. Keep your head held high, and keep plugging along. You’re doing great work.


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