Damon Fowler is a hero. Not a local hero – a national hero.
While Damon has been posting to the reddit/atheism community and keeping us all updated, I actually had a chance to catch up with him last night for the whole story. And some parts are really sad.
Damon Fowler just graduated high school from Bastrop High School, in Bastrop Louisiana. For those of you who don’t know, it’s your typical Bible-belt small town – everyone’s a Christian and if you’re not you might as well have a mental condition. Damon decided he was an atheist a few years ago, and to his knowledge, there were only one or two other people that joined him in his lack of belief.
His alert to the atheist community came from his post five days ago to reddit/atheism:
My graduation from high school is this Friday. I live in the Bible Belt of the United States. The school was going to perform a prayer at graduation, but due to me sending the superintendent an email stating it was against Louisiana state law and that I would be forced to contact the ACLU if they ignored me, they ceased it. The school backed down, but that’s when the shitstorm rolled in. Everyone is trying to get it back in the ceremony now. I’m not worried about it, but everyone hates me… kind of worried about attending graduation now. It’s attracted more hostility than I thought.
My reasoning behind it is that it’s emotionally stressing on anyone who isn’t Christian. No one else wanted to stand up for their constitutional right of having freedom of and FROM religion. I was also hoping to encourage other atheists to come out and be heard. I’m one of maybe three atheists in this town that I currently know of. One of the others is afraid to come out of the (atheist) closet.
Though I’ve caused my classmates to hate me, I feel like I’ve done the right thing. Regardless of their thoughts on it, basically saying I am ruining their fun and their lives, I feel like I’ve helped someone out there. I didn’t do this for me or just atheists, but anyone who doesn’t believe in their god that prayer to Yahweh may affect.
Moral of the story: though the opposition may be great, majority doesn’t necessarily mean right. Thank you for reading. Wish me luck at graduation.
EDIT: Well, it hit the fan a couple hours ago. They’ve already assembled a group of supporters at a local church and called in the newspaper. I’ve had to deactivate my Facebook account and I can’t reason with any of them. They refuse to listen. The whole town hates me, aside from a few closet atheists that are silently supporting, which I don’t blame them looking at what I’ve incited here. Thanks for the support though.
If anyone would like to offer support, the superintendent is who I emailed and the school’s website is mpsb.us
Thanks for the support. It’s really helping. This has just gotten sickening.
Note: There are since a couple updates to this covering some of the aftermath. Visit reddit/atheism to read the post, updates, and comments.
He got a little press this past week when The Bastrop Enterprise picked up the story: You can read it here. After some deliberation with the school’s attorneys, the administration decided to drop the prayer from the graduation programs, for fear of an expensive ACLU suit.
Damon recalled sending the letter to his principal, saying, “…I didn’t think it would cause this much of a problem. It seemed like a pretty reasonable request to me.” Little did he know, this would erupt into a massive public debate.
Since the outrage, Damon’s parents have cut him off entirely of all support (and communication), causing him to uproot and move to Dallas, Texas. He now lives with his sister, who was the one wielding the camera throughout the offensive graduation prayer. Damon was present at his graduation. Of the graduation ceremonies, he said, “I wasn’t going to miss that.”
When I asked him about his parents’ reaction to discovering he is an atheist, he told me, “They ignored it for a while. They would try to hint at religious things around me. Tried to hand me some little book saying why there is a god… I didn’t like it. When this happened, they nearly stopped talking to me altogether. They would support the other side.” He added, “They didn’t even stay until after graduation to see me. Obviously, they threw my things out of the house.”
It’s very troubling to think about the lack of support that Damon has had from his parents, but it certainly was made up for by his brother and sister, both skeptics who saw through the outrageous inconsistencies and contradictions of the Christian faith. But he has a soft spot for his parents’ ignorance: “It makes me sad that they don’t want me in their life anymore. I guess I can understand their ignorance, but it still hurts.”
Aside from his parents’ reaction, one of the other most tragic parts of the story were the hurtful comments that Mitzi Quinn, a teacher at his school, had to offer to the Bastrop Enterprise. Damon hasn’t really ever spoken with Mitzi Quinn, but she seemed to know him quite well. Saddening were her comments about his involvement in the graduation, as if his lack of contribution to the graduation ceremony revoked his right to speak out against something unconstitutional. “It was offensive. I was a bit upset that she would say that to a newspaper,” he told me. It seems like the major shock in the article was not that she had her own opinion, but that as a professional, she shouldn’t have openly offered that to a newspaper.
Unfortunately, the high school graduation did feature a prayer, which was invoked by the students. This, however, is legal, but there is a lot of speculation as to whether or not the students were encouraged to initiate the prayer by the administration and faculty. I’ve heard mumblings of a possible lawsuit, but as of yet, we haven’t heard many details.
Of course, there are memes all over reddit/atheism like the one above, which lets a little humor into the situation. Unfortunately, Damon mentioned that it was clear that the prayer was portrayed as a snide “we won!” remark, instead of an earnest request to God. I saw it when I watched the video, too.
Damon stated that the main inspiration for his desire to remove the prayer from the school graduation program was from a sophomore at a Cranston, RI school, Jessica Ahlquist. She was recently featured in the press after challenging her school to remove a prayer banner in her school’s auditorium. You can read her blog here. (Note, the post from May 21st includes a good background and explanation of the story)
Damon and I spoke Saturday evening and he mentioned doing some traveling before starting college, possibly to meet with Jessica in the near future. It’s my understanding that they’ve been in communication during the debacle, and I’m very happy that they’ve both found some support in each other as they battle Goliath, so to speak.
The newly-labeled atheist hero is looking at community college to begin, and then to transfer to a four-year university. Thanks to our fellow atheist, Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist blog, Damon now has nearly $16,000 in a scholarship fund from a donation pool of just over 700 people. He also received a $1,000 scholarship from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Hopefully his life will be as interesting as this past week has been, but in a more positive way.
If you want to Internet high-five Damon, visit his Facebook profile here.