The Black Sheep of Hardesty

Rather than having no beliefs, as some people assume, Dawkins argued atheists are moral people. "They believe in life, they believe in science and art and poetry and love and marriage and family -- they believe in all those things. They just don't believe in supernatural magic."

Despite saying similar things on a recent book tour in the United States, Dawkins said he received far more encouragement for his beliefs than hostility. Instead of being met with anger, he was surprised to find that "people thank me over and over again for saying what they themselves would like to say, but somehow feel they better not."

Margaret Downey, president of Atheists Alliance International, an organization of religion-free groups and people around the world, has been gathering information on discrimination against atheists. "We get hundreds of narratives throughout the year, and they range from everything from murder to knifings and beatings and rapes, to just community shunning, people losing jobs, people losing family members, all for the sake of staying principled and nonhypocritical when it comes to their philosophy in life."

'A Free Ride From All Criticism'

Dawkins said it is time for atheists to speak up. "We've all been brought up to think that religion deserves a kind of free ride, free from all criticism."

Nicole's father is suing Hardesty High School, saying the school violated the Constitution by endorsing school prayer and Christian beliefs. "The school was conspiring basically to run the atheist out of town. Or at least out of school."

School administrators said Nicole was bad for team morale and that she'd stolen another student's sneakers, so their reasons for kicking her off were fair. Nicole claims the charges they made were unfounded.

A year later, Nicole was allowed back on the team. This time, when the prayer started, she stayed outside the circle. "I just stood outside of it and said the Pledge of Allegiance … Without the 'under God.'"

The next school day, Nicole was suspended -- this time, she was accused of threatening to kill a team member. But according to Nicole, she never said that.

Her father, troubled by what Nicole was going through, said, "These are people that are supposed to teach our young. They're wicked. I'm telling you, they're wicked."

Taking it to the Court

Fearing for their daughter's safety at school, Nicole's parents decided to home-school all three of their children. Meanwhile, American Atheist International helped them file the civil lawsuit against the town and school, claiming they violated separation of church and state.

The school district strongly denied this, saying, "There was no schoolwide sponsored religious practices going on at Hardesty," and Nicole "was removed from the basketball team for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons that had nothing to do with her religious views."

Being out of school hurts Nicole's chances of fulfilling her dream of going to college on an athletic scholarship. "I miss school, but I don't wanna go back to that school. I tried going back to that school for two days, and I couldn't handle it. And there was a new kid there and he's like, 'Oh, I heard about you. You're that dirty little troublemaking atheist.'"

So for now, Nicole's dreams are on hold.

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