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High School Atheists Are Organizing -- Why Are Schools Pushing Back?

High school non-theist groups are getting dedicated support from a national organization but their schools are flipping out. What does this mean for the future of atheism?
 
 
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High school student Brian Lisco just wanted to form a student club. A senior at Stephen Austin High School in the Houston suburbs, Lisco wanted to meet with like-minded students; students who shared common interests, who could talk about ideas they found interesting, who could give one another support.

But his efforts were consistently thwarted by the administration at his high school. His requests to form a club were stalled for months, and obstacle after obstacle was put in his path.

Why?

Because the group he wanted to start was an atheist group.

His story is being repeated, with variations, around the country.

Atheist student groups have been organizing in colleges and universities for years, and their numbers are climbing at an astonishing rate. The Secular Student Alliance, an umbrella organization supporting non-theistic student groups, passed 250 affiliates this month -- a number that has doubled in just two years. (Conflict of interest alert: I'm on the speaker's bureau for the Secular Student Alliance, and am colleagues/ friends with several people in the organization.) And for the most part, atheist groups at colleges and universities meet with little resistance, and in many cases get a fair degree of support, from school administrations -- who are familiar with the laws in such matters, and often have clear diversity policies in place.

But in high schools, it's a different story. Resistance to atheist groups from high school administrators, while not universal, is depressingly common. According to JT Eberhard, campus organizer and high school specialist for the SSA, "Most of them seem to elect to try and drag their feet until the interested students either lose interest or graduate. The 'objections' are varied. I've heard 'it would be too controversial', 'all clubs are secular', 'other groups already do the same thing', and a whole host of other lame reasons." Eberhard adds that a common tactic is to tell students they need a faculty adviser to form a group -- a requirement that is, in fact, flatly illegal -- "and then to make sure the group cannot find a willing one." (The legal principle that high schools must give all students equal access to forming extracurricular clubs, with or without a faculty advisor and regardless of the purpose of the club, has been well- established... and it's a principle that has been applied to religious groups, and was in fact strongly lobbied for by them.)

"A predictable pattern has actually emerged," he continues, "1) Interested student gets everything in order, finds a faculty sponsor, and applies for their group; 2) administration stonewalls them; 3) students push harder; 4) administration crumbles, but faculty sponsor withdraws. I've seen this exact same scenario play out almost double-digit times in the six weeks I've been here."

In a particularly vivid example of these tactics, an Oklahoma high school student who tried to form an atheist group was accused of trying to form a "hate group"... and when it became clear that the students knew their rights and were not going to back down, the faculty sponsor they had lined up withdrew under pressure, saying she had been told that sponsoring this group would be "a bad career move."

But at the beginning of 2011, the Secular Student Alliance began a program specifically devoted to supporting high school atheist groups. With the help of a grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, they hired Eberhard, co-founder of the nationally renowned atheist conference Skepticon (and of the Missouri State University Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Skepticon's official host), as their dedicated high school campus organizer.

 
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