Strong Backbone Student Activist Award: Taking on school’s violations paid off, eventually

Dustin Daniels

Dustin received a $1,000 “Strong Backbone Award,” which is generously contributed by an octogenarian member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (who prefers anonymity) to celebrate his birthday. He likes to bestow the scholarship, via FFRF, upon a high school student or recent high school grad who has demonstrated a “strong backbone” in defending the separation of state and church and/or freethought.

By Dustin Daniels

All of this started when I was a 16-year-old sophomore who opposed a Ten Commandments plaque hanging inside my Tennessee high school.

After I lodged a complaint, controversy ensued, with hundreds of people inflamed about the complaint, which caused the Cumberland County School Board to ultimately vote to allow the decalogue to remain on the walls.

Despite this loss, there was little time to be upset because I knew more needed to be done, since the basketball team had a “character coach” who was leading weekly devotionals, religious messages were displayed everywhere and Christian music was blasted during classes. All of it had to be resolved.

I decided to continue fighting and give activism one more chance . . . or multiple chances.

FFRF stepped in and had to write numerous letters of complaint, sometimes over the same violation. Some people told me I was being too difficult, but I felt the students’ rights were of top priority. It didn’t matter how annoying the school officials thought the complaints were. Following the Constitution is not annoying nor is it too difficult.

Every day, I walked into a school that I felt lacked any respect for me or my rights. Each complaint took months to resolve, and, frustratingly, it seemed each time one violation was resolved, another would come up.

Finally, after nearly two years, there was success. The school district’s attorney agreed to conduct countywide training on religion in schools. Additionally, teachers who had repeat violations were warned of possible reprimand, and one principal agreed to watch over a sixth-grade history teacher accused of promoting Jesus in the world religions curriculum. Multiple religious displays have been removed and the basketball team was required to be inclusive.

We are still dealing with serious issues, such as the Ten Commandments plaques and school events in churches. However, as the old saying goes, “The wheels of justice turn slowly,” but they turn, nonetheless.

True religious freedom cannot exist when the government decides to be a church or a preacher. Seeing what happens when religion and government become too close made me realize the wall between church and state must remain tall and impenetrable. It is up to everyone to protect that wall and to never settle for less than what we deserve.

Dustin graduated high school early and will attend Roane State Community College. He hopes to go to law school after college graduation.