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Atheist Students Confront Bigotry, Establish Secular Clubs in Schools

Atheist clubs are on the rise in public schools -- but those who seek to establish them often battle deep prejudices as they "come out" as non-believers.

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More groups might have been created. But the formation of secular student organizations has been met with resistance across the country:

Eighteen-year-old Brian Liscoe was denied the opportunity to form a “nontheists” group at his high school near Houston. School administrators finally granted him permission after USAToday picked up the story and questioned them.

Karol Zawadzki’s high school in Chicago would not allow him to use the word “atheist” on school posters promoting the Atheist Club at a school fair.

Duncan Henderson, 15, tried to set up an SSA at his junior high school in Auburn, Ala. The school administration blocked him and appeared to be prepared for a court fight. However, the principal left and Duncan moved up to Auburn High School. There, he's been assured that an SSA can be formed.

Yet administrators who try to block the creation of secular groups usually run afoul of the U.S. Equal Access Act. That 1984 law says any school that gets federal support and already has one student-formed club cannot forbid the creation of others. The law was originally championed by conservative Christians as a way to promote religious groups on campus.

“Our group doesn’t want anything different than any Christian group at our school has,” said Duncan Henderson in a recent interview with Nick News. “So why can’t I have this group?”

Why A Group for Atheists?

Unbelievers are frequently asked why they need school support groups. After all, isn’t the only thing they share a lack of belief in something?

But mutual support is a big reason for forming an SSA. Many—probably most—young unbelievers face hostility from people at school and even family members. For instance, the parents of Damon Fowler, the boy from Bastrop, La., cut him off financially and threw him out of the house after he came out as an atheist. His belongings were tossed onto the front porch.

In Panama City, Fla., AP English teacher Mike Creamer saw the need for an SSA at Rutherford High School after several students approached him to talk about their religious beliefs—or lack thereof. Creamer is a life-long, open atheist. He launched the club in 2010. At the first meeting, 30 students showed up.

“A lot of kids are atheist or agnostic and don’t even want their parents to know,” Creamer said. “I wasn’t surprised that we had them—just [surprised] how many actually showed up.”

Creamer said his administration didn’t block the formation of the club, but some fellow teachers have made their displeasure known. At least one or two students a year drop out of his class once they find out he’s an atheist, he said.

“Other than finding it interesting and disappointing, they’re not willing to give me a chance,” he said.

Teachers wanting to take the first step towards forming a secular student club must lead by example. It’s what Creamer said he’s found to be most effective in providing those kinds of lessons outside the traditional classroom setting by forming the SSA.

“You’ve got to be able to stand up at the faculty meeting and say, ‘Hey listen, my Secular Student Alliance did this’ knowing 95 percent of people in that room don’t want to hear about it,” Creamer said. “If you’re not willing to do that, I don’t think it’s going to go.”

Creamer said many people believe the SSA’s main function is to “bash God.” That’s not true, and that’s also not the purpose of a local SSA. He said club members participate in activities—like a recent Frisbee tournament to raise money for a local homeless shelter— and spend time discussing rationalism, skepticism, politics and legislation.