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Atheists struggle in rural Oklahoma

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Nicole cries and feels she was discriminated against by her high school teachers and classmates. Nicole cries and feels she was discriminated against by her high school teachers and classmates.
Nicole stands outside the prayer circle at a basketball game. Nicole stands outside the prayer circle at a basketball game.
Chuck Smalkowski, Nicole's father, regrets moving his family to Oklahoma from California. Chuck Smalkowski, Nicole's father, regrets moving his family to Oklahoma from California.

NEWS 9

The wide-open spaces of the Oklahoma Panhandle are home to rugged land, dusty roads, and many farms. It is also home to one teenager who is gaining national attention. 

Nicole Smalkowski, 17, has been featured on national and local television programs as a youth standing up for her First Amendment rights. But her circumstances did not come by choice and her struggle has not been a welcome one. Now stuck in the middle of a lawsuit with her family against her high school, Nicole is just trying to live a normal teenager's life.

Accepted as the only girl on the boys' football team at Hardesty High School, she kept up with all the boys. Her teammates treated her with respect, she said, and she was excited to continue playing sports into the winter season, when basketball started.

Ironically, all of Nicole's problems started when she began playing on the girls' basketball team. After the first game, the girls gathered to recite the Lord's Prayer, as they always do. However, Nicole did not participate. Nicole is an atheist, she does not believe in God. When she told her teammates their excitement for the California-transplanted freshman turned sour.

"When I started using ‘atheist,' they thought I worshipped the devil and all around school I was a ‘devil worshipper' and a ‘witch,'" said Nicole.

Soon school leaders were treating her differently and calling her ‘bad for morale,' Nicole said. She was allegedly accused of stealing another basketball player's shoes and kicked off the team. And that was the start of the ongoing feud between the Smalkowskis and the town of Hardesty.

"If you're not part of it (Christianity), you at least should be shunned or, at worst, harassed. And when she stood her ground on it and refused, they punished her," said Chuck Smalkowski, Nicole's father. 

Born an atheist, Nicole's entire family does not believe in God and do not attend church services--uncommon choices in a rural Oklahoman town.

The family knew they were moving to the Bible-belt when Chuck transplanted the family from California to their 80-acre farm in Hardesty three years ago. Chuck never thought his family's beliefs would turn his American Dream into a rural nightmare.

"I thought it was America," said Chuck in disbelief.

Now Chuck wishes he had never moved his family to Hardesty. So outraged at the treatment his daughter was receiving, he went to the principal's house one night. The two soon clashed and allegedly exchanged blows. Chuck was charged with assault, but was later acquitted.

"It's been turned into a religious issue, when it never was a religious issue to begin with," said Truman Summerford, a former pastor in Hardesty.

Truman's wife, Diane, works as a substitute teacher at Hardesty and helps with the school's basketball team. The Summerfords feel the Smalkowski feud has unfairly damaged their town's reputation.

"This is a very loving town, I was raised here," said Diane Summerford.

Nicole was allowed back on to the basketball team, a year later, as a sophomore. A compromise seemed to have been reached as the team gathered to pray. Nicole remained separated from the prayer circle, reciting the pledge of allegiance instead.

"After the Lord's Prayer, this other girl comes up to her, and puts her arm around her, and says, ‘It's okay,'" said Diane.

The next day though, Nicole was accused of threatening to kill another student and she was suspended. Nicole denies any such threat and her family had had enough. They decided to home school Nicole, and the rest of their three children.

The Smalkowskis also turned to legal action. The family has filed suit not only against members of Hardesty High School, but also from the town of Hardesty, as well as Texas County.

For trying to make Nicole pray during school-related events, the Smalkowskis filed a civil suit-citing violations against the separation of church and state. The family named and charged a school board member and her husband, and a Texas County Deputy Sheriff as conspirators who hired someone, for payment, to cause personal harm to Chuck for his religious beliefs and opinions. The suit also states that Nicole and the rest of her family were then made the victims of false accusations and "subjected to public humiliation and distress."

The case was filed last year in the U.S District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. Motions are pending and the court is not likely to hear the case before July, 2008, said the District Clerk.

Despite all the bumps in the dusty road, Nicole said she's remained happy. She's also become somewhat of a celebrity amongst atheists, speaking at atheist conventions and events, and playing gigs in her family band. The family travels out-of-state to be surrounded by others that are more accepting.

Yet the citizens of Hardesty insist they are tolerant people.

"Not everybody is a Christian here," said Diane Summerford. "But we sure don't push anyone off because they're not."

The Hardesty High School principal's office offered "no comment" regarding Nicole Smalkowski and her story. 

Originally Aired: November 1, 2007

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