The Black Sheep of Hardesty

Three years ago the Smalkowski family moved to an 80-acre ranch in Oklahoma, and Nicole Smalkowski, who was 13 years old at the time, was excited about it.

"We have a whole bunch of land that's ours, you can walk on it, you can camp on your own land." Nicole said. She looked forward to playing sports at her new high school.

Nicole is a remarkable athlete, and when school started she became the only girl to play on the boys' football team. The boys accepted her, she said, because she kept up with them.

Then came basketball season, and at the first game, everything changed -- because after the game the girls gathered to recite the Lord's Prayer.

From the Church to the Basketball Court

Nicole said, "I didn't think they had religion in sports. But when it came to basketball they would pray before and after practices. They would pray during games. And you know, praying was a tradition for them and that is what they said."

Even the opposing basketball team joined in -- from the stands, school officials bowed their heads.

"You could see that all of the teachers that work at the school, the administration had their heads bowed and were saying the Lord's Prayer with the kids. Coach has his head bowed. It's a thing that everyone does," Nicole said.

This was a very uncomfortable situation for Nicole, who has been an atheist all her life.

"I wouldn't do it because it's disrespectful to me. I think it's disrespectful to them. Why would they want an atheist in their circle saying the Lord's Prayer? I mean, if I was a Jew or Muslim or Hindu, I would have a problem with that prayer."

The Birth of an Atheist

Nicole said she was born an atheist. Her father, Chuck Smalkowski, long ago rejected the idea of a divine power, and religion was never mentioned in their home when she was growing up. "My proof there is no God is you can't bring him forth," she said.

Such atheism is unusual in the small town of Hardesty, Okla. Faith is a big part of most people's lives here. The United States is an overwhelmingly faith-based nation -- a March 2007 Newsweek poll showed that 91 percent of the country believes in God.

Nicole said that once she told peers at school that she was an atheist, her relationship with the other kids changed. "You know they would call me devil worshipper. I'd walk down the halls, people would laugh at me. They would look at me really weird and stare me down."

Then, according to Nicole, the teachers also began harassing her, one going as far as to say, "This is a Christian country, and if you don't like it, get out."

Diane Summerford is a substitute teacher at the high school Nicole attends and is married to one of the town's religious leaders, Pastor Truman Summerford. She said there was no discrimination against Nicole. "I have never seen anything in the school where the kids treated Nicole badly. We have good kids that care, and they are good Christian kids."

And as for the game-end tradition, Pastor Summerford said, "It is still a free country we are living in today. And our young people are standing up for their faith as they do this."

The Beliefs of an Atheist

The evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins, arguably the highest-profile atheist in the world and the author of the current best seller "The God Delusion," is as passionate in his nonbelief as many are in their faith.

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