May 11, 2007— -- 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.
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."
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 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.
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."
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."
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.