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5 Kids Bravely Fighting Christian Domination of Their Schools

Imagine fighting a pitched church-state battle when you’re a teenager in high school.

It can take a lot of guts to stand up for separation of church and state in America. People who file lawsuits to stop the display of religious symbols on public property or the use of sectarian prayers before government meetings often find themselves the targets of harassment, threats, and even violence.

Adults can usually withstand the pressure. But imagine fighting a pitched church-state battle when you’re a teenager in high school.

The high school years are a period when many young people just want to fit in with peers or keep a low profile. When separation of church and state is violated in a public school, students are the ones most affected. They’re the ones who have to stand up and make it right. It’s not always easy.

Here are five young people who made a difference.

1. Zack Kopplin: Zack Kopplin is a one-man war against the teaching of bad science in Louisiana. Zack was a high school student in Baton Rogue when he started to speak out against a measure legislators passed in 2008 to sneak creationist materials into schools through the backdoor.

Zack began lobbying for repeal of the so-called “Louisiana Science Act” (which is misnamed because it doesn’t actually promote science) and lined up 43 Nobel laureates to endorse a repeal of the law. He also worked with state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) to introduce legislation repealing the law.

The repeal hasn’t passed yet, but Kopplin, who is 19 and now a student at Rice University in Houston, continues to work on the issue. He has led rallies calling for repeal and lobbies national science organizations, urging them to avoid holding conferences in Louisiana until the law is overturned. (The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology has already done so, shifting its conference from New Orleans to Salt Lake City.) He also captured national headlines by blowing the whistle on the teaching of creationism in private school in Louisiana that receive taxpayer funding through a voucher program.

In addition, Kopplin successfully lobbied the New Orleans City Council to support repeal of the law. In May, the council voted unanimously in favor of supporting repeal. A group of religious leaders called the Clergy Letter Project has also endorsed the call.

Along the way, Kopplin has become an effective spokesperson for the cause of sound science instruction in public schools. He has delivered speeches and appeared on national news programs to discuss the issue. In early March, he was interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS.

2. Jessica Ahlquist: In 2011, high school junior Jessica Ahlquist protested the posting of a banner listing an official school prayer in the auditorium of Cranston High School West in Rhode Island.

The banner had been hanging there since 1963 – ironically, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down official programs of prayer and Bible reading in public schools in a famous case called  Abington Township v. Schempp.

Officials at the school refused to remove the banner, so Ahlquist contacted the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU sued on her behalf, and she won. In the ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux praised Ahlquist for having the courage to take on the case at the tender age of 16.

Unfortunately, many members of the community didn’t agree. Ahlquist was subjected to a torrent of abuse. A Twitter user said “this girl honestly needs to be punched in the face,” and an anonymous commenter posted Ahlquist’s home address on the Providence Journal's website. She received numerous death threats and was shadowed by police for a time at school. Ahlquist was even blasted by the 1970s rock star Meatloaf, who cited her as an example of why “the world’s gone to hell in a handbasket.”

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