CA School District Owes Atheist Groups $10,000 After Censoring Their Scholarship Offers

The Antelope Valley Union High School District in California offers students a list of college scholarships they may want to apply for. If you’re an organization that wants your scholarship included on the list, you just have to get in touch with the proper administrators. What if you’re a religious group? Not a problem. The more scholarships they can list, the better.

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For the same reason, the Antelope Valley Freethinkers and Freedom From Religion Foundation wanted their scholarships on the list… yet for the past two years, that wasn’t happening. When FFRF recently inquired about the exclusion, they were surprised by the response:

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.

Yikes. What were the prompts? Explain in 500 words the worst aspects of religion? Tell us what you will do in the future to repudiate faith?

Not even close. Here’s what the Antelope Valley Freethinkers asked for in their prompt:

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.

We all know what they’re looking for: An essay in which students talk about countering administrators who believe abstinence-only sex education is effective, or people who think vaccines lead to autism, or religious leaders who perpetuate anti-atheist stereotypes. It’s very straightforward.

FFRF gave students a choice of essays:

“Young, bold and nonbelieving: Challenges of being a nonbeliever of color.”

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.

There’s absolutely nothing in there you wouldn’t see from other groups. Even the Left-Handed Club would ask students to write about how they’ve struggled as a minority and how they’ve overcome stereotypes.

This was anti-atheist prejudice, plain and simple.

And now both sides have agreed to a settlement that will include the atheists’ scholarship opportunities alongside all the other ones.

In addition, the District will have to pay FFRF $10,000 to cover all legal fees.

That’s what a resounding victory looks like.

“We’re sorry it took a lawsuit to get the school district to agree to equal treatment of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Antelope Valley Freethinkers,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “But we were confident we would prevail. It’s also heartening to get a victorious settlement so quickly.

Keep in mind that it also spells an unofficial defeat for Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver (a.k.a. the guy who defended Kim Davis) who said last month that the atheist groups had no right to ask for their scholarships to be included on the list because they were just spewing hate.

Once again, he showed that he doesn’t understand how the law works. It’s like he’s not really an attorney; he just plays one every time the cameras show up.

(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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.