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.
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.