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2011 Best High School Individual Activist Award Winners

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By: Leslie A. Zukor

Congratulations to the 2011 winners of the Secular Student Alliance's Best High School Individual Activist awards. Each year, the SSA gives prizes to the top three activists at the high school level. This year's winners are first place recipient, Jessica Ahlquist, of Cranston High School West in Rhode Island, second place awardee, Zack Kopplin, of Baton Rouge Magnet High School, and third place winner, Harrison Hopkins, of Laurens District 55 High in South Carolina.

Jessica Ahlquist

Ahlquist is a courageous high school sophomore in Rhode Island, a tireless advocate for the separation of church and state. Much of her activism surrounds her objection to a prayer banner at her public high school, which her school district upheld even after she complained. This spring, in concert with the Rhode Island Chapter of the ACLU, Ahlquist filed a lawsuit to have the banner removed. All the while, Jessica has been in the public eye supporting the separation of religion from government. As a result of her activism, she has received both threats from believers and admiration from freethinkers. In her own words, the "hate" that she is getting is painful, but it is worth it:

"Yes, it's degrading to go to school everyday where you are hated by nearly everyone. It's painful to lose friends and know that the smiles some of your favorite teachers give you are forced. It's annoying to walk down the hall and hear people say things under their breath about you. However, it is a small price to pay in the scheme of things. We should all value our rights and freedom much more than what petty haters have to say."

In addition to protesting the prayer banner, Ahlquist has started two facebook groups promoting her cause, garnering a total of nearly 1,000 members. She has also helped clean up parks and volunteered in food drives in concert with the Atheists of Rhode Island and plans to start an SSA affiliate at her high school. In addition, she has created her own blog at http://www.jessicaahlquist.com, where she uses her freethinking nature to address important issues of secular concern.

For the proactive stances she has taken, Jessica has been an inspiration to church-state separation activists, Damon Fowler and Harrison Hopkins, as well as to several other secular students in the United States and around the world. As a result of her tireless activism, the SSA is proud to award Jessica Ahlquist first place in the Best High School Individual Activist competition.

Zack Kopplin

Congratulations to Zack Kopplin for winning second place in the Secular Student Alliance's Best High School Individual Activist competition. Kopplin has made a name for himself through his advocacy on behalf of repealing Louisiana's creationism law. In 2008, Republican Governer, Bobby Jindal, signed the Louisiana Science Education Act into law, which allows for the teaching of creationism in the guise of presenting supplementary material on evolution. A resident of Baton Rouge, Kopplin created http://www.repealcreationism.com, an informative website that addresses the controversy from an atheist perspective.

Not only has Kopplin created a website, he has also appeared on national media outlets such as MSNBC. The seventeen-year-old activist has spearheaded efforts to counter the law, and his website provides a great resource for the pro-rational thought, anti-creationism efforts in Louisiana. He also is behind attempts to repeal the law in the 2011 spring legislative session. As a result of his activism challenging creationism, we are proud to award Zack Kopplin second place in the Best High School Individual Activist competition.

Harrison Hopkins

The SSA is pleased to announce that Harrison Hopkins is the third place recipient of the Best Individual High School Activist award. Harrison initially contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation objecting to the practice of allowing a student vote to determine whether there would be sectarian prayer at his June 2 graduation. After the FFRF's attorney wrote three letters of complaint, the school backed down. However, the issue caused a community-wide uproar, with Harrison making numerous media appearances. In the end, Hopkins received a Freedom From Religion Foundation $1,000 Youth Activist Award.

Through all of these tribulations, Harrison has been a public advocate for the separation of church and state and our godless Constitution. Here's just one example of the media coverage that he has received for his bold stand on behalf of our secular values: http://www2.wspa.com/news/2011/may/18/9/no-graduation-upstate-school-ar-1837419/ . Since Hopkins has been a courageous advocate for the separation of church and state "even in the face of disdain from peers and teachers" Hopkins has won third place in the Secular Student Alliance's Best Individual High School Activist competition.

All of the Best Awards were presented at the Secular Student Alliance's annual conference, which takes place in Columbus, OH, during the last weekend of July. Winners received an attractive plaque and a cash prize.

Leslie A. Zukor is the Secretary of the Secular Student Alliance's Board of Directors. She attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she studied Anthropology and founded the Reed Secular Alliance. Leslie has also spearheaded the Freethought Books Project, which gives atheist, humanistic, and freethinking literature to prisoners across the United States. In her spare time, she takes an interest in photography and baseball.

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