When I started Fayette Freethought Society (FFS), I knew early on that I wanted it to be more than just a social group. Because we were in a very conservative and religious area of Georgia, there was quite a bit of Christian privilege, for example it was common to ask a new neighbor, “what church do you go to?” Religion was also brought up in job interviews, there were prayer circles at work, pastors would enter public schools and proselytize to students, even prayers before public school board and city council meetings. It was because of this constant overreach of religion within public spaces, and in our personal lives, that I believed it was important for our group to be involved in activism when necessary.
If you start a group, state early on whether your group will be involved in activism or not because there may be members who are uncomfortable with stepping “out” of the atheist closet within the community. Those members can choose to not participate in activism, however, your group may be highlighted in the media for being “activists” and those who are uncomfortable with any attention may want to remain closeted. Personal reasons for not wanting to participate in activism were varied in our group. One woman did not want added attention because she was President of her tennis club and the exposure would hurt her at the country club. Another woman (a pilot’s wife) was just “upset” because our well known activist was “abrasive” and used curse words. I believed their reasoning for not wanting our group to participate in local activism was juvenile at best and we proceeded to participate in low-key positive activism. It is a delicate balance to achieve, that being whether to stand up for what you believe is right, or, refrain from involving yourself and your group when you see religious overreach. For me, I could not turn away from some of the blatant overreach and even illegal activities that were happening in my community.
In 2011, I received a Facebook message from some local high school students who were upset that local clergy members were entering their public school and proselytizing to students during school hours. This was the first time, as the Founder of the group, that I was faced with the decision to either 1) turn away and ignore the situation or 2) act and do something to address it. With the help of another member, we wrote a letter to the Fayette County school board: FCBOE Letter
In some areas of the country, it’s very common to have prayer before city council and/or school board meetings. This was the case in our community in Fayette County, GA. One of our members at the time challenged the city officials over this practice and I fully supported what he was trying to do. Although some of the members in our group were outraged over his activism, it brought attention to the blatant religious overreach in our community: Public Prayer in Peachtree City
In 2013, a Fayette citizen filed a complaint “regarding the Fayette County School (System) Board of Education’s practice of opening its meetings with prayer.” As a result, the public school board meeting had a moment-of-silence in place of a prayer. I have no doubt that the person who initiated the complaint was a member of our group. The letter from Americans United cited a variety of legal cases while maintaining that prayer at school board meetings is unconstitutional.
“Any prayers, even non-sectarian ones in the broad Judeo-Christian tradition, send the message to adherents of minority faiths that the board does not represent their interests or welcome their participation in debates over matters of concern to the public,” the letter said. “That matter is particularly damaging when students are in the audience, as they are here. Accordingly, because the board represents all students and their families, regardless of faith, we ask that you end the board’s practice of opening its meetings with prayer.” Lawsuit threatened