High School Student Stands Up Against Prayer at Public School and Is Ostracized, Demeaned and Threatened

When a high school atheist tried to stop prayer at his graduation, he was harassed and kicked out of his house. But the atheist community stepped in.

Damon Fowler
Whatever you think about atheists — good, bad, mixed, indifferent — this story should seriously trouble you.

Damon Fowler, an atheist student at Bastrop High School in Louisiana, was about to graduate. His public school was planning to have a prayer as part of the graduation ceremony: as they traditionally did, as so many public schools around the country do every year. But Fowler — knowing that government- sponsored prayer in the public schools are unconstitutional and legally forbidden — contacted the school superintendent to let him know that he opposed the prayer, and would be contacting the ACLU if it happened. The school — at first, anyway — agreed, and cancelled the prayer.

Then Fowler’s name, and his role in this incident, was leaked. And, as a direct result:

1) Fowler has been hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community.

2) One of Fowler’s teachers has publicly demeaned him.

3) Fowler has been physically threatened. Students have threatened to “jump him” at graduation practice, and he has received multiple threats of bodily harm, and even death threats.

4) Fowler’s parents have cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and thrown his belongings onto the front porch.

Oh, and by the way? They went ahead and had the graduation prayer anyway.

Before we get into the details of all this, let’s be very, very clear about the facts and the law here: Nobody — not Fowler, not the ACLU, nobody — is telling anybody at Bastrop High School that they can’t pray. People can pray at graduations and other school events all they want. The sole issue here is whether a public school can have a prayer at a graduation or other school event as an official, school- sponsored part of the program. Individual prayer? Hunky dory. Off-campus prayers at churches or private events? Knock yourself out. Government promotion of a religious agenda? Not so much. What with the First Amendment and the “establishment of religion” bit and all.

It’s a law and a Constitution that protects everybody, not just atheists. If you wouldn’t want to be subjected to a government- sponsored Buddhist prayer, you ought not to be subjecting others to a government- sponsored Christian prayer.

Okay. I hope that’s clear.

So here’s a little more detail about what exactly happened with Damon Fowler.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, High School Student Stands Up Against Prayer at Public School and Is Ostracized, Demeaned and Threatened. To find out more about how exactly the ostracization of Damon Fowler has unfolded — and how the atheist community has stepped up to the plate — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

High School Student Stands Up Against Prayer at Public School and Is Ostracized, Demeaned and Threatened

23 thoughts on “High School Student Stands Up Against Prayer at Public School and Is Ostracized, Demeaned and Threatened

  1. 3

    Greta – Damon is slated to be on The Non-Prophets this weekend and we’re turning it into a show full of High School activists. Damon Fowler, Jessica Ahlquist and Alix Egbert are all scheduled to call in (separately) to discuss their efforts to remove the unconstitutional school-led prayers and other violations.
    Three students, three different stories – one huge problem. We’ll be focused on them for the entire show and for those who can’t listen live, I’ll try to have it posted shortly after we finish the episode.

  2. 4

    I have so much respect for this guy! He has shown real courage in the face of hostility. I wish I had half as much courage when I was his age.
    I am so proud of the atheist community for giving him so much support too (I definitely donated). One would hope that this will help the population at large see that we really are moral, caring people, but we’ll see.

  3. 5

    “The encouraging note is that he’s moving out of the Baptist Belt….though DFW isn’t all that progressive, either”
    I’ve heard tell that he’s probably going to the University of North Texas next year. Yes, it’s located in the Bible Belt, but it’s a relatively liberal place considering, and we have an awesome freethought group. I’m hoping he’ll feel at home.

  4. 6

    Damon Fowler, Harrison Hopkins and Jessica Ahlquist spoke on the Freethought Rhode Island radio program yesterday. It was great to hear all three of them (recording at link below).
    Jessica Ahlquist was particularly fun to listen to, because she’s obviously been interviewing for awhile and is a very good speaker.
    Hooray for teen activists!

  5. 8

    Mitzi Quinn is a public school teacher who promoted unlawful religious activity and publicly belittled a student for standing up for his rights. She has mistaken this country for the United Arab Emirates and has clearly failed to uphold our constitution and care for the well being of her student – an American citizen. All Americans should unite to have this menace fired.

  6. 9

    I want to second what Erin said. The South has a unique culture which penetrates even into the cities (and Texas does too, to the extent that it’s a category unto itself). But most major cities are more progressive, like most of America is, for that matter. My (white) queer atheist friends in Arlington don’t have 100% lovely approval of the region, but it’s much more of a tolerant politically centrist area than other parts of Texas, and I suspect that the same sort of thing would apply to atheists generally (maybe not accepted, but at least tolerated by default). It should also be noted that Dallas and Austin and a few other Texan cities tend to vote Democratic, so they are less conservative bastions than the stereotypes suggest.
    That said, race and gender are still issues in a lot of areas though; my mother is having difficulty integrating some of her Asian doctors, because they aren’t always accepted by the culture there, and she’s heard a lot of racist stereotyping rhetoric. And I’ve learned not to get her started on sexism toward female executives; not because she’s unreasonable, but because she’s got so many terrible anecdotes that those conversations are hour-long commitments at least.

  7. 10

    I’m a west-coaster that assumed the NE would be pretty relaxed (compared to the Bible Belt).
    But Jessica Ahlquist pointed out that Rhode Island has a HUGE Catholic population and she received much more backlash than she thought she would.

  8. 11

    Good article Greta. It really shocked me that this kid was so vigorously harassed by his own community. It seems like the freedom of expression applies to nazis, bigots, sexists etc., but not to critics of religion. Religion is not to be touched and if you do you’re in trouble. I think the most inexcusable thing is the action of his parents. This is child abuse in my opinion. Throwing your own child out for standing up for his basic civil rights is I think one of the worst things you can do. I just can’t get my head around this kind of intolerance. There are a number of people I thoroughly dislike (religious fundamentalists come to mind), but I wouldn’t dream of making threats let alone act on them. I certainly wouldn’t throw my own child out of my house for disagreeing with me. This just baffles me. Good for him his brother is being a good brother!

  9. 12

    I don’t understand this prayer in schools bit (and I went to Catholic school until grade 9.)
    Are you a brave Christian warrior, strong in your faith, or a sycophantic lick-spittle who can’t even speak to your god unless you have entire town encouraging you first?
    (Having written that, I wish I had just a fraction of Damon’s courage when I was a student.)

  10. 13

    What kind of parents throw their own son out for supporting the Constitution? I guess that whole “family values” thing takes a backseat to theocracy.

  11. 14

    Reading about this series of events makes me sick and disgusted with the community, the parents, and everyone at fault. No person should have to endure this.
    (The comment thread seems relatively civil by AlterNet standards, although there’s still a fair amount of “that’s not really Christian of them!” sentiment being thrown around. Sigh…)

  12. 15

    I’m a 29-year-old gay female and an atheist, but for some reason you are the most annoying person I’ve ever come across. You seem to have devoted your entire life to whining about what I feel is totally petty shit and complaining that everything wrong with your life is someone else’s fault. As an atheist and a lesbian I have two main problems in life: (1) It seems that most young female atheists are just smart enough to question the sexual conventions they were raised with but not smart enough to realize they don’t HAVE to be total whores … therefore I’m quite lonely; and (2) when I die I know that I’ll be nothing more than worm food. These problems, I believe, are very serious and deep problems. The crap you whine about is all meaningless to me because even at 29 I’m beyond the point where I really care what other people think. What did your parents do to you to fuck you up so bad? Why do you feel the need to be part of a society that rejects you? For your own good, sis, cowgirl the fuck up and be your own goddamn person and stop giving a shit what everyone else thinks. “Wah wah wah, someone prayed in school, oh no!!” WHO GIVES A FUCK
    p.s. If you feel this comment is off the topic a little bit, too fucking bad, I’m stoned

  13. 16

    Posted by: jacquelyn m | May 27, 2011 at 10:51 PM
    The entire comment you have left here is in fact off topic.
    It is also projection.
    You see, this blog post happens to be about a person other than Greta Christina being ostracised, threatened with violence, abandoned by their parents, and how we the atheist movement have demonstrated that we can rally around that person.
    And you are bringing in your personal crap, to smear into the comments. Your issues are in fact petty bullshit.
    Number one we can tell is bullshit, because otherwise you wouldn’t be irritated. You feel this “whining” about petty things like civil rights, reflects on you, and makes it more awkward for you.
    Number two. lets be honest here you’re feeling existential angst? Michael Fowler is on the recieving end of actual violence and threats to end his existance. His own parents back the people making those threats.
    It is not Greta whining about petty issues, its you.

  14. 17

    Hey Bruce, yeah, I said the comment was a little off topic. I was commenting on the fact that she wastes time concerning herself with shit like this article. From what I can see, her whole BLOG is like this. The annoying fat kid made a scene and people got in his shit for it. So what!! I would have the same problems with society that Greta and the fat kid have IF I GAVE A SHIT, WHICH I DON’T, BECAUSE I HAVE MORE IMPORTANT THINGS TO THINK ABOUT. If you live in a conservative area (I do: Grosse Pointe, Michigan), as long as people aren’t messing with you just shut the fuck up and mind your own business. This is exactly what I do and people don’t come to my house and try to lynch me because I’m a gay atheist. I don’t need to involve other people in my private life. I’m not an annoying and flamboyant attention whore. I don’t feel the need to tell everyone how gay I am to feel like I exist. But apparently people like you do, probably because you have tiny little souls. So blow me.
    — “Number one we can tell is bullshit, because otherwise you wouldn’t be irritated.”
    I have no idea what this means.

  15. 18

    Posted by: jacquelyn m | May 28, 2011 at 12:21 PM
    It means your transparently talking shit about not caring what people think of you. You don’t want to make more waves with your neigbours than you are already dealing with.
    And the thing is that in order to continue not making those waves, you cannot have people pointing out wrongs you agree to be wrong.
    It makes you feel small.
    Its like Republicans or Democrats talking about the biased media whenever their party does something monstrously stupid.
    They recognise that if they recognise the wrong being done they have to take some degree of risk in doing something about it, or be cowards in their own eyes.
    And they aren’t prepared to take that risk, so they slam the media instead. They don’t want the “greater evil” of the other party to get any stronger, so they can’t hear reports on just how bad the “lesser evil” is.

  16. 19

    Bruce…. Dude maybe I should try reading what you wrote when I get back from vacation because to be honest man I’m totally wacked outta my crazy brains on the ganja and I still don’t get what you mean. The reason I don’t make waves is not because I’m scared or whatever. I really just don’t care what people think. If people agree with what I believe, great, and if not, whatever. I don’t care what a bunch of idiot republicans think any more than what people in Norway think, or Martians or whatever. Not unless they intend to screw with rights I really care about (like if they wanted to kill me for being gay or if they wanted to take away my right to drive or whatever). I can’t get married in some states??? HAHA SO WHAT!! I think anyone who wants to get married is nuts, whether she/he is gay OR straight! And as far as the atheist thing, honestly I don’t think there is a LESS important question in life. So what the christians run the country! There were some really nice christians throughout history and some really shitty atheists. I think the liberals ought to be happy a brutha just got elected…maybe twenty years from now we’ll have an atheist in the white house and then maybe we’ll elect a jellyfish. Who cares!
    And yeah btw…my whining to you is absolutely petty and stupid! No idea what the deal is with me. I have all these friends who are like “bitch check this out, get emotional about this!” and i really just don’t care. I feel like the religious wackos are worthless to me and the atheists are too…I feel like most atheists make a religion out of atheism and it drives me nuts. I actually know atheists who won’t even TALK to christians, and I think that is really stupid! My grandparents were the sweetest people in the world and they were both christians…they weren’t the “god hates fags” type but the really genuinely nice type. So yeah I wish I could just find people to hang with who were laid back and cool about shit, open-minded and nice to everyone and not consumed with stupid shit, but people on both sides are just batshit crazy if ya ask me! (Speaking of nice…I could have been a little nicer to you dude so I apologize…)

  17. 20

    I think we should import Pandagon’s rule for trolls, the so-called Stick Rule. Basically, if it’s dumber than a stick, it’s not worth arguing with. Invoking it now.

  18. 22

    Jacquelyn, I would suggest reading the “if you’re just going to read three things” links on the right, particularly in light of your main problem 2) above. Greta has a wonderful body of work here, but it takes time to read and absorb it all.
    PS Apologies, I realise this violates the “stick rule” above!

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