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Groups sue Antelope Valley school district over atheist scholarships

Two groups are suing the Antelope Valley Union High School District for allegedly not informing students about scholarships aimed at non-religious students.

According to a lawsuit filed in federal court last week, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., and the Antelope Valley Freethinkers asked district officials to include descriptions of their competitive scholarships in lists distributed to students.

The Freedom from Religion organization offered $17,950 in scholarships to college-bound students last year, according to the suit. Its essay topics were "Young, Bold and Nonbelieving: Challenges of being a nonbeliever of color” or “Why I’m Good Without God: Challenges of being a young nonbeliever.”

The Antelope Valley Freethinkers planned to offer $1,750 to students who wrote essays about “being a young freethinker in Antelope Valley,” according to the suit.

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District officials allowed descriptions of overtly religious scholarships in their lists, according to Freedom from Religion officials, including the “Playing with Purpose Award,” which requires applicants to describe “how and when you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior.”

But Jeff Foster, a deputy superintendent with the district, told David Dionne, the Freethinker’s president, that the wording of their essays “would upset parents,” according to the suit.

Later, district officials told both the Freethinkers and the Freedom from Religion Foundation that their scholarships would not be advertised in school lists, the suit said.

Questions on the Freedom from Religion’s essay “appear to promote anti-religious expression and contain argumentative undertones toward religion,” an attorney with the district wrote in one email, according to the suit.

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The suit claims the district’s actions violate free speech laws, but the district has a policy of not endorsing, encouraging or soliciting “religious or anti-religious expression or activities among students." 

“It seems very petty and small of the school district not to inform students and their families,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Freedom from Religion’s co-president.

District officials could not be reached for comment Monday.

Jason.Song@latimes.com

Twitter: @byjsong

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