Reading Time: 5 minutes

For more than ten years now, the Dare County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina has been running a free summer camp for kids in the community. There are three sessions of “Camp Save A Life Together” (a.k.a. Camp S.A.L.T.) each year, aimed at kids ages 8 through 14. Activities include “fishing, climbing the Alpine Tower, rock wall, educational field trips and going to the sound.”

According to Sheriff J.D. ‘Doug’ Doughtie, more than 1,500 kids have attended the camp since its inception. It’s also important to note that many of those kids may not have had anywhere else to go because their parents were working or they couldn’t afford other camps. Sounds like a great program providing a great service.

Here’s the problem: This has always been a “faith-based” camp. Doughtie even told a local newspaper last year that prayer was a major part of what they did:

Last fall during COVID-19 school closures, Camp S.A.L.T. volunteers stepped up and provided a place for students to go. The district helped bus students to the camp where they could connect to wifi and do schoolwork if their parents were working. “Our volunteers, they love the kids,” Doughtie said.

That love, Doughtie believes, comes from God.

“The good Lord has blessed it,” he said. Before breakfast and lunch, campers volunteer to pray for the meal. About the faith aspect of the camp, “If you want to be a part of that you are,” said Doughtie. “Kids will pray and thank God for the day, that nobody got hurt. It’s amazing to hear what these kids actually pray for. They pray for each other – that’s the amazing part. They know what’s going on, they pray about health, even at the young age that they are. It’s incredible how much they think of one another,” he said.

None of that sounds malicious. But all of this is explicitly Christian and it has no place in a camp run by a sheriff’s office for the same reason public school teachers or coaches shouldn’t be leading students in prayer circles. The “faith-based” language for the camp was still there as recently as March 9, when the Sheriff’s Office opened registration for the summer:

This language obviously raises a host of legal and moral concerns. Why would a government agency be running a Christian camp? If the goal was to be as inclusive as possible to the kids who might want to attend, why exclude ones who aren’t religious or make them feel like they don’t belong? Even worse, do the adults realize they’re putting pressure on those kids to convert in order to fit in?

Those questions are why the Southeastern Virginia Atheists, Skeptics, & Humanists (SEVASH) finally did something about it. It wasn’t just theoretical. A parent connected to the group said her son attended the camp in the past and had been asked about his religious affiliation. When he said he was an atheist, it led to him being ostracized and having self-doubt. The group reported their concerns to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a warning letter was sent to the sheriff last week explaining the legal problems.

Here’s what’s surprising: The sheriff listened.

Yesterday, Doughtie posted this message on Facebook explaining why the camp would still go on as scheduled—but without the “faith-based” element:

Since March 9 when we posted about the opening of Camp SALT for this year, the second sentence in that post said this is a faith-based camp. It then went on to explain each child will have opportunities to make new friends, learn ways to deal with challenges and will create proud memories. We have been doing this for 10 years and thought nothing about the faith-based concept until someone questioned why was it faith based and what about the kids who believed in a different faith or were without faith. A statement from one of the people that posted on our Facebook account was “There are many in our community that are not Christian or not religious at all and the Sheriff’s Office should be well attuned to that. Why would these children be made to feel “other” at a County camp?”

When I read that statement I realized that it shouldn’t make any child feel that way. This camp was established to offer an opportunity for kids who would be at home by themselves during the summer because their parents worked or for whatever the reason might be.

There is no cost for the camp, as it is by donations. If one can not afford to donate, their children can still attend the camp. By offering the three sessions we could come into contact with almost one hundred kids and parents could be confident that their children were being taken care of. By making the statement that it is faith based we could have been missing out on children that had different beliefs or no belief at all! I sincerely hope that we have not done that but there certainly was the possibility.

From this point on, the faith-based aspect is removed from the application and the daily aspect of the camp. The genuine love and caring for the kids who will be attending will not change! The experiences that come from attending and the friendships that are forged with both the campers and the staff will remain indefinitely. Every kid attending will have the opportunity to enjoy what the camp has to offer.

To be sure, Doughtie makes it sound like he did this out of the goodness of his heart, making no mention of FFRF’s legal warning. But the end result is that the camp will continue, but in a secular way, just as it should. By keeping it focused on providing a safe space for kids in the community, without excluding anyone for unintentional reasons, the mission can continue even more strongly than before. There’s no reason he should keep doing something wrong just because people are used to it.

Even the March 9 post was edited yesterday to remove the “faith-based” wording.

As you might expect, though, there are plenty of people angry about the change. They appear to be mostly Christians who are so used to their religion being the “default setting” that they see a more inclusive and secular camp as anti-Christian. It’s not. Climbing a rock wall isn’t just for Jesus followers.

They’re acting like it’s everyone else’s responsibility to find a secular camp, when the truth is Christians can always enroll their kids in a church camp if they want religion injected into the experience. It’s not the job of the government to promote a particular faith or even the idea of it.

The good news is that their comments are meaningless. The camp will be secular all because people finally spoke up and did something about it. And this time, without a prolonged fight, the official in charge saw the value of what they were saying.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.