Atheist high school groups on the rise!

As readers of this site know, on Jan. 3 I began working with the Secular Student Alliance, an international organization which supports student groups.  Today the SSA put out a press release about my position that has our office drowning in press interest (I just finished doing an interview with USA Today).  I should apologize since this job is also the cause of my decrease in posting at Atheism Resource (but it’s been worth it!).  I hope to fix that shortly.

The press release can be read here and it includes a point of pride for me:

In the past month alone, five new high school groups have affiliated with the SSA, after it took four years for the first twelve to join.

The students are out there.  All we need to do is let them know that we’re here to help.

I’m finding several things in my new position.  I’m finding that most students don’t even know they can start a secular club at their school.  Sadly, I’m also finding that the ones who do know almost universally receive resistance from administrators.  In one short month I’ve heard several stories from Texas and Oklahoma that follow a pattern.

1.   Student organizes the group, meets all requirements to form a secular club, and finds a faculty sponsor.
2.  Administration fights them.
3.  Student group pushes back, fully aware that the law is on their side.
4.  Administration crumbles, but the faculty sponsor changes their mind under administrative pressure.

This almost always happens.  Sadly, this is usually enough to dissuade atheist student leaders since most high schools have a faculty advisor listed as a requirement.  The use of the absence of a faculty monitor as a means of keeping unpopular student groups out is nothing new.  The only problem is that such a requirement is illegal.  In Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990), the United States Supreme Court ruled that a high school violated the Equal Access Act when it denied a student permission to form a Christian club.  The Court was guided by its observation that the purpose of the Act is to forbid schools to “deny access to school facilities to any unfavored student club on the basis of its speech content.”  Id. at 245.  Furthermore, the Court advised, the Act is to be given a “broad reading,” id. at 239, because a narrow reading would result either in almost no schools being subject to the Act, or it would permit schools to strategically evade the Act.  Id. at 244.  The Court held that the club must be allowed by the school, even though the student’s proposal called for the club to “have the same privileges and meet on the same terms and conditions as other … student groups, except that the proposed club would not have a faculty sponsor” as required by school regulations.  Id. at 232.  The Court pointed out that, at most, “the Act permits the assignment of a teacher, administrator, or other school employee to a meeting for custodial purposes.”  Id. at 253.

A similar conclusion was reached in Pope v. East Brunswick Board of Education, 12 F.3d 1244 (3d Cir. 1993).  There, the court considered whether the Equal Access Act[1] is limited in application to schools that allow student-initiated clubs or extends to schools that allow only faculty-initiated clubs.  The court adopted the broader interpretation, reasoning that a narrow interpretation of the Act would allow schools to limit clubs to those with mainstream interests for which faculty sponsors could be easily found, while excluding clubs that espouse objectionable views on the ground that no sponsor could be found. Id. at 1250-51.

Several court rulings have mirrored this opinion.  So what do we do with these types of scenarios?  As SSA Executive Director August Brunsman says in the press release…

“While the law is certainly on our side, we would rather have social understanding than legal victory,” remarked August Brunsman, the SSA’s Executive Director.  “We want to demonstrate to our fellow Americans that people who don’t believe in a god are nothing to be afraid of.”

He hit the nail right on the head.  I see the results of that lack of social understanding on a daily basis.  We have multiple leaders of high school groups who must lead secretly for fear of retaliation.  We cannot so much as send them packages with their names on them.  Atheist students are bullied and isolated.  High school is a tough time for anybody, especially atheists.  Atheist clubs/groups provide an outlet for all the closeted atheists to have the same social opportunities and refuge from bullying and harassment available to every other student.  They are necessary.

Now with the SSA at the backs of these students, you can bet that these kinds of hurdles on the path to equality will stop tripping up high school students.  I say it’s high time.

You can also count on seeing more from the groups that are already affiliated.  One of our newest affiliates, Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, OK is bringing in Bobbie Kirkart to speak.  Redlands High School in California is bringing in Skepticon veteran and Atheism Resource blogger David Fitzgerald.  We have high school groups running events in their community and contributing mightily to a national movement!  This coming generation is moving exponentially into the camp of skepticism.  This is our tipping point, and it starts right here, right now.

Photos courtesy of the SSA