Atheist Student Clubs Face Steep Climb to Acceptance

If you have any contact with a public high school, you probably know that students can form an array of clubs that meet during non-instructional time.

My son, who is in 10th grade, reports a dizzying list of student-run clubs at his school, covering every possible interest. Along with some friends, my son joined the anime club and was for a time involved in a “duct tape club.” (Don’t ask.)

There are also many religious clubs at the school. Jewish students have a club, as do Muslim students. There are several Christian clubs.

How can this be? It’s a public school.

The answer is the Equal Access Act. Passed by Congress in 1984 and later upheld by the Supreme Court, the act allows students at public secondary schools to form religious clubs if other clubs not strictly related to the curriculum are meeting.

Clubs must have a faculty sponsor, but they are student run. They are voluntary and meet during non-instructional time (which is usually defined as a lunch period or after school). Because the school isn’t sponsoring the clubs or pushing religion, they have been deemed constitutional. It’s a good way to bring religion into the schools for those who want it since there is no compulsion. Most groups that support church-state separation don’t have a problem with the Equal Access Act.

That isn’t to say they aren’t occasional problems. At Pisgah High School in Canton, N.C., some atheist students who wanted to form a club affiliated with the Secular Student Alliance ran into problems. Under the Equal Access Act, atheist clubs must be treated just like religious clubs, but the youngsters encountered resistance. The students were told that their club “didn’t fit in” at the school.

The Secular Student Alliance, the North Carolina branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to school officials, pointing out that under the law, they could not deny the students the right to form an atheist club.

School officials quickly reversed course. Students Kalei Wilson and her friends began making plans to launch the club.

Then the harassment started. Kalei and her family received a flood of hateful messages, some of them laced with profanity. She was also verbally harassed at school.

In the face of these attacks, Kalei decided to pull back and drop plans to launch the club. That is a shame, but Kalei’s position is understandable. She’s dealing with a lot of pressure, and I’m sure she has a lot on her academic plate as well.

If there’s one bright spot in this incident, it’s that some people in North Carolina are speaking out against the hate directed toward Kalei. Among them is Mark Sandlin, a Presbyterian minister in Greensboro.

Sandlin reached out to Kalei with a message of support.

“As a Christian minister in North Carolina, the state where this is happening, I find it beyond troubling and sadly ironic that people who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus are responding in such an aggressive, intolerant and unloving way,” Sandlin wrote. “It’s inexcusable, really.”

It is inexcusable. And perhaps if more people like Sandlin stand up, the next time an atheist student at Pisgah High wants to form a club, it will go off without a hitch.

P.S. Some years ago, Americans United attorneys assisted a high school student in Michigan who was also denied the right to form an atheist club. One letter was all it took to set the matter straight. The Equal Access Act has been the law of the land for 30 years. It’s time school officials got familiar with the law’s provisions and followed it.

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