Fortunately, America is also the sort of country where real justice is possible despite some Christians’ best efforts. Chester Smalkowski, an atheist living in Hardesty, Oklahoma, was found not guilty by a jury who heard all manner of nonsense from Christians who seem to have wanted nothing more than to run him and his family out of town. American Atheists reports:
Nicole Smalkowski was kicked off of the girls' basketball team after refusing to stand in a circle with her teammates on the gymnasium floor of the Hardesty public High School and recite the "Lord's Prayer." After school officials learned that she and her family were Atheists, lies were created about her as grounds to take her off of the team.
Nicole's father Chuck made the mistake of going to the home of principal Lloyd Buckley to talk about it. Even if atheists didn't have to worry about physical violence, I'd still say that it was a mistake — going to a person's home in the evening in such a situation just isn't very appropriate. On the other hand, Hardesty evidently has a population of just a few hundred people and in such small communities it may be that doing such a thing is much more common.
Still, the consequences indicate that Smalkowski probably should have just made a phone call:
Outside of his front fence, the principal struck Chuck, who blocked the blow. Both men fell to the ground and Buckley sustained minor injuries, the provable origins of which were strikingly contrary to his under oath trial testimony. Buckley then took out misdemeanor criminal assault charges against Chuck. After Smalkowski rejected the offer to drop the charges if he and his Atheist family left the state, the charges were raised to a felony. Chuck called American Atheists for help.
The jury acquitted Smalkowski after just two hours of deliberation — and that time span included eating dinner. American Atheists’ description of the jury selection is interesting:
Edwin [Kagin] introduced himself to the jury as National Legal Director for American Atheists and asked the prospective jury in the Oklahoma panhandle if they could accept the testimony of an Atheist over that of a professed Christian. When the jury looked at him blankly, the judge asked the prospects if they understood the question. One woman spoke for many in the group by asking “What is an Atheist?” Edwin explained that an Atheist was a person who did not believe in a god or gods or in a supernatural world, and that the defendant and his entire family were such persons. Many of the prospects said they could not believe such a person over a Christian and were struck for cause. To their credit, many members of the jury panel, including two ministers’ wives, told the judge they could not be fair to an Atheist in such a situation and were excused.
I don’t know if I should feel more depressed over the fact that so many people were unable to believe the word of an atheist over a Christian, or optimistic about the fact that two ministers’ wives were willing to admit that they couldn't believe an atheist’s word over a Christian’s.
At Democratic Underground, Smalkowski describes the series of events in his own words:
Hardesty has labeled us as devil worshippers. ...Teachers watched as students said she was gay because she voted for Kerry, only homosexuals vote for Kerry, we are Christian we vote for Bush. They persecuted my daughter. They called her a half-breed. Made fun of northerners and Yankees. Teachers said they hated her. Having other students follow her around to catch her on the littlest infraction. No teacher ever tried to enlighten these misguided children. Instead the school encouraged more of the same.
The entire high school only has a couple of dozen students, and that’s in all classes, so the harassment being described here would have been very intense and completely inescapable.
I turned myself in within 2 hours of an arrest warrant. Bail was set high at $5000 for a misdemeanor. When I paid it, it was switched to $15,000. A man that turns himself in and owns land is not a flight risk. I am not charged with two charges; the misdemeanor was brought along because of the excessive bail! The Sheriff Benji Fuentes and policeman Guy Cook, who are this mans friend, live within a few doors of each other, have wives and relatives on the school board, never took both sides of the story, though they heard it. If they had it would have stopped right there. Instead they knowingly shaped the evidence to hopefully stop the lawsuit I said I was going to file. They even went so far as to hindering us in obtaining evidence that would prove my innocence and my daughter's civil suit. [...]
The D.A. was willing to drop the charges if I left the county. The charges were switched from a misdemeanor to a felony when I refused. My local lawyer from Guymon was more than compromised and the DA knew it, yet she allowed him to continue until I found out and dropped him. He admitted it himself.
The entire community turned against the Smalkowskis — and those who knew the truth were pressured into keeping quiet. Local reporters were pressured to not print the truth — and reporters from outside the area appear to have followed suit. Few news outlets even have the story; those that do fail to mention most of the relevant facts, like how Nicole Smalkowski was punished for not participating in a religious exercise in a public school.
KFDA in Texas, for example, has as short piece which doesn’t mention the harassment of the entire family for being atheists. Apparently stories about atheists being persecuted aren’t important, but stories about a parent accused of assaulting a school official are important enough to mention.
Understanding Atheism & Atheists:
- Atheism 101
- What is Atheism?
- Defining Atheism
- Is Atheism a Religion?
- Who Are Atheists?
- Why Don't Atheists Believe in God?
- Questions About Atheism
- Atheism Myths
- Polls on Atheism
Resources for Atheists: