California's high desert, inland from greater Los Angeles, is a conservative area with many military and retired military personnel.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation annually offers $17,950 in college scholarships, and the Antelope Valley Freethinkers offered $1,750 in scholarships to three winners.
Both groups asked applicants to submit an essay on the challenges of being a "nonbeliever" or "freethinker."
Both say the school district and Palmdale High School refused to make their scholarship announcements available to students, though the district did announce other scholarship offers that "solicited religious speech, required applicants to be religious, and dealt with the historically controversial topics of homosexuality and guns."
But the school district "censored plaintiffs' speech because their message is nonreligious, critical of religion, and controversial. This unequal treatment amounts to viewpoint discrimination and violates the First Amendment," they say in the complaint.
Freethinkers president David Dionne, a plaintiff, says in the lawsuit that Deputy Superintendent Jeff Foster told him that "he couldn't approve the scholarship the way it was worded because it would upset some parents. In particular, he cited the following sentence as particularly objectionable: 'Perhaps you've been ridiculed, harassed, or punished for speaking up against religion in the classroom, at school events, in government, or within your family.'"
When Dionne offered to rewrite his announcement, he says, Foster told him: "We simply do not have the time to 'word smith' language that might be acceptable to the district and yet meet the intent of your organization."
The plaintiffs say the school board has no compelling interest and no rational basis for refusing to list the scholarships, nor does the denial serve any "legitimate government interest."
The refusal suppresses speech and denies equal access to the school's scholarship distribution system, according to the complaint.
The high school does, however, announce a scholarship named after L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, according to the complaint.
Palmdale-based Antelope Valley Freethinkers describes itself as a licensed nonprofit educational charity "dedicated to promoting a rational worldview through fellowship, education and community service."
Applicants for a scholarship from Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion had to submit essays on one of two topics: "Young, bold and nonbelieving: Challenges of being a nonbeliever of color," or "Why I'm Good Without God: Challenges of being a young nonbeliever."
Freethinkers asked for essays on "Being a Young Freethinker in the Antelope Valley."
They seek declaratory judgment, an injunction to stop the district from suppressing speech and due process, damages, costs and attorneys' fees.
Their attorney David J. Kaloyanides, of Chino, was not immediately for comment Thursday.
Antelope Valley school Superintendent David Vierra did not respond to an email request for comment.