Atheists Sue School District Over Free Speech Rights

Two atheist groups are suing a Southern California public school district for allegedly "censoring" scholarships offered to college-bound seniors who write essays about what it means to be a nonbeliever in the Antelope Valley.

The nonprofit Antelope Valley Freethinkers and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national secular group in Wisconsin, filed a federal lawsuit last week against the Antelope Valley Union High School District in Lancaster.

The groups allege that the district censored their scholarship ads while allowing ones from Christians, Catholics, Jews, Scientologists, the LGBT community and even one about "What the Second Amendment means to you."

The Freethinkers, who develop "opinions based on science and reason in contrast to faith and dogma," offer scholarships "Why I'm Good Without God: Challenges of being a young nonbeliever" and one for minority nonbelievers.

Every year the Freethinkers offer thousands of dollars in scholarship money to high school students who compete in its scholarship contests. Typically, about 10 to 20 high school students win money each year. Winners are also chosen at the college and graduate level, court documents said.

David Dionne, the president of the Antelope Valley Freethinkers, alleged that he was told that the district "couldn't approve the scholarship the way it was worded because it would upset some parents," the lawsuit said.

Neither Dionne nor officials from the Antelope Valley Union High School District responded to messages seeking comment.


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The district allegedly singled out, "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."

When Dionne offered to reword it, the official told him in an email, "We simply do not have the time to 'word smith' language that might be acceptable to the district and yet meet the intent of your organization. If you wish to consider a pursuit of this matter — I would invite this potential dialogue early next spring, when we would have time to consider alternate language."

The District's General Counsel Bridget L. Cook, responded to follow up letters saying "since the District is a limited public forum, we reserve the right to determine what information we allow to be disseminated in our schools."

Cook claimed that the Freethinkers proposed essay prompts "appear to promote anti-religious expression and contain argumentative undertones toward religion. Therefore, the District will not be distributing this scholarship information to students."

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