Standing up for what’s right, especially when doing so involves speaking out against the status quo, is never easy. But it’s particularly difficult for high school students, who often face tremendous peer pressure to fit in. For one brave teenager in Delta County, Colorado, however, defending the separation of church and state was worth the risk of rejection.
Cidney Fisk, a recent graduate of Delta High School, earned admiration from secular and anti-censorship groups this year when she spoke out against constitutional violations in her school district. An open atheist in a staunchly Christian community, Fisk experienced pushback from her school, her peers, and the local media when she stood up for her rights. Despite some of the negative reactions, however, Fisk remains undaunted in her desire to see the US Constitution upheld.
Fisk was raised in a Catholic home and attended a religious school early in life. However, in middle school she underwent a period of intellectual inquiry that ultimately led her to abandon the faith with which she was raised. “I thought some of it was really silly,” she says. She also experienced personal hardships that made her question the existence of a deity. “I just did not believe in a benevolent God—or any God at all.” However, because of the overtly Christian climate in her community, Fisk stayed in the closet until high school, when she finally got fed up with the inauthenticity of going through the motions of believing. “I was tired of being closeted, and I was kind of sick of pretending,” Fisk recalls. She was also inspired by the confidence she gained in joining her school’s debate team, which she characterized as “a much more welcoming community [where] I felt like being secular was no longer a crime.”
In describing what spurred her activism, Fisk recounts an incident that took place during her junior year of high school. At the time, Amendment 67, also known as a “personhood” initiative, was on the November ballot in Colorado. Opposed by abortion rights groups and many humanist groups, including the American Humanist Association, the amendment would have granted the status of personhood to fetuses and infringe upon women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies during pregnancy. On Halloween, Fisk staged her own creative protest against the amendment by wearing a trash bag to class with the words “Amendment 67” written on it. “I wanted to show that the amendment was trash,” Fisk explains. Some teachers might applaud a student for taking the time to educate herself and speak out about state policy issues. Unfortunately, one of Fisk’s teachers did not take this approach and instead chided Fisk for exercising her freedom of expression, telling her that “God gave babies life.”
As a senior this past school year, Fisk became more vocal in speaking out against similar instances of religious promotion by teachers and by her high school. For instance, she was a vocal advocate for the rights of secular groups, such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and satanic groups to distribute literature in the school district because the Gideons were permitted to distribute Bibles. Fisk also spoke out against a faith-based sex education speaker who was invited to give a presentation at Delta High School. “I didn’t think that was right,” Fisk thought when she learned that the speaker had a religious background. So she did some research and watched several videos of previous presentations given by the speaker. “I was appalled,” Fisk tells me.
In silent protest of what she assumed would be a violation of the Constitution and of a Colorado law that requires sex education classes to be comprehensive, Fisk organized some of her fellow students to wear t-shirts printed with slogans such as “Real control is birth control” to the presentation.
Rather than relaying medically accurate information to students, the speaker mentioned God and religion in her presentation, told students that premarital sex brought them further away from God, and displayed crucifixes on her presentation slides. Fisk noted that the speaker also failed to provide any information about sexual health for LGBTQ youth and made inappropriate comments, such as comparing women’s vaginas to Hoover vacuums. Furthermore, the sex education program was funded by a local crisis pregnancy center, which Fisk described as “well known for proselytizing.” In a radio interview, the speaker dismissed concerns about her lack of medical training by saying, “God is the most powerful teaching tool.”
Fisk later wrote an article criticizing the presentation for her school’s student publication, and she and her parents met with the superintendent to express their concerns about the sex-ed program
Additionally, Fisk criticized a Christian student club for inviting youth pastors to come to the school and eat lunch with students during school hours. She expressed particular concern about the youth pastors’ encouraging students to attend meetings of the Christian student group. “From my research, [that’s] not entirely legal,” Fisk recalls thinking. While her misgivings about the program’s constitutional violations were not as well publicized in the local media, she said, “It was well known at the school that I didn’t approve.” A student leader in the group even confronted Fisk and accused her of being “hateful,” to which she responded, “I’m not being hateful. I’m just questioning the legality of this club.” She also explained that the club’s actions disregarded the rights of non-Christian students.
For her activism and open atheism, Fisk experienced more than just accusations of being hateful. After coming out as an atheist to a local newspaper and asking another religious speaker at the school about his qualifications to give a presentation on drug abuse, Fisk received lowered grades from her student government teacher for “questioning authority.” Fisk also received online threats, the most disturbing of which stated that “any atheist would leave the school in a body bag.”
Just as troubling was how Fisk’s school reacted. “My dad even filed a police report,” she recalls about the threats, which were also reported to the school. “Nothing was done.”
After school officials discovered an Instagram post by Fisk that appeared to criticize her school district, they called her into the office for a meeting, during which she says she felt threatened. School counselors also failed to provide her with references for scholarships for which she was more than qualified.
Despite these setbacks, Fisk remains undeterred in her desire to advocate for the freedom of and freedom from religion. In September she’ll start classes at the University of Denver, where she’ll be studying public policy and would also like to become more involved with the Secular Student Alliance. Her goal is to go on to law school and study constitutional law. “You do get punished for being the way you are,” Fisk says when asked about the pushback she received from her school. “[But] I’m extremely happy that I did what I did.”
She also has words of reassurance for other students who may be struggling with their own closeted atheism and their objections to constitutional violations in their public schools: “It’s completely okay to be secular, even if you live in a place or a nation that isn’t.” Fisk encourages other students who are afraid of being rejected by their friends for being open about their atheism to “get that negativity out of your life.” Fisk is adamant that students in similarly religious communities be aware of the risks they’re taking by criticizing religious promotion in their public schools. Even though she lost friends, she wants students in similar situations to know that “if you don’t speak up, nothing will change.”
Cidney Fisk is already a remarkable advocate for church-state separation and the rights of atheists, humanists, and non-Christian students. Given her passionate activism and bravery in defending her constitutional rights, the humanist movement should keep an eye on this young activist and expect even greater things from her in the future.