One of the programs we’re proudest of at the Freedom From Religion Foundation is rewarding students or youths who demonstrate special activism to promote freethought or to keep religion out of schools and government.
In recent years, thanks to a bequest and kind donors who create one-time or annual scholarships, FFRF has been bestowed $9,000-$27,000 a year in activism awards. Most cash scholarships are $1,000. These are separate from the four annual student essay contests.
For this ongoing scholarship program, we’d like your help as an FFRF member in identifying worthy candidates, who may come to your attention through news stories or local secular groups.
The level of activism of previous recipients has been remarkably high. Many recipients have fought against hostile public school administrations over religion in their schools. Or they’ve initiated complaints over serious state/church entanglements in their community, or even acted as litigants in controversial state/church lawsuits.
Not uncommonly, FFRF has given a young freethinker an award after learning they have been targeted by school officials or their community for speaking up for freethought or for protesting First Amendment infractions. Micah White, in 1999, received the Ruth Jokinen Memorial Scholarship after his powerful op-ed piece, “Atheists Under Siege,” was published in The New York Times chronicling the difficulties he faced forming an atheist club as an alternative to Christian clubs at his Michigan school. Micah has been one of several high schoolers FFRF has recognized for fighting for their right to start a freethought club under the Equal Access Act.
State/church litigants include FFRF’s own student plaintiffs, some who have sued over unconstitutional graduation prayers. Litigating recipients have included Jessica Ahlquist, the Rhode Island teen who became a freethought cause célèbre in 2012, as well as a pariah in her school and state, for successfully suing over a prayer banner in her school.
One of the more memorable recipients was Schiller Hill, a bright young Texan who, in 2000, bowed out of being valedictorian, saying publicly: “I cannot accept and I will not give a speech because I know there will be prayers entailed in this ceremony and I cannot do it. I believe in a rational means to everything, not in some all-powerful being.”
Another unforgettable recipient was Darrell Lambert, an exceptional Eagle Scout who became a national figure in 2002, when he was expelled at age 19 from his Washington State Boy Scout troop because he was an atheist.
Awards have gone for heroic acts as well as the more theatrical: One creative recipient was given a cash award after being disciplined and making news for dressing up as Jesus on Fictional Character Day at his high school! Recipients have been as young as 10.
FFRF members Richard and Beverly Hermsen most generously have set up a $5,000 award to recognize very special activism, which in recent years is often bestowed at FFRF’s annual convention. In 2018, the Hermsen award went to amazing 12-year-old science author and activist Bailey Harris.
Other awards include the $2,000 Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award, created by an Oregon couple who prefer anonymity. An octogenarian FFRF has generously celebrated his own birthday by financing an annual $1,000 “Strong Backbone Student Activist Award,” reserved for pre-college students. FFRF administers several other one-time or recurring awards, including the Paul J. Gaylor Activist Award funded by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor to honor her father’s memory as FFRF’s longest-serving volunteer.
FFRF’s ability to reward and encourage student activists was greatly enhanced in 2014, when the Cliff Richards Memorial Student Activist Endowment was created, after this member stipulated such use in his bequest. Tapping this fund gives FFRF the freedom to name multiple awardees a year.
So, if you become aware of remarkable activism by a young freethinker or student, please let us know by contacting Freethought Today Editor PJ Slinger, at [email protected] Or you may prefer to mail news clippings or other information to him c/o FFRF, PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701.