Protect Teen Students’ Rights to Form Atheist Clubs

School officials are placing undue burdens and obstacles in the way of students trying to establish atheist and freethought groups at their middle and high schools across the country.  The Equal Access Act (originally passed to protect religious groups rights to form and have access to school facilities), which guarantees the right of students to have a club regardless of religious or nonreligious content if the school allows any other extracurricular clubs, is being ignored by school administrators when nontheistic students seek to form clubs in schools.

As the numbers of nontheists increases in the general population in America, so are the numbers middle and high students self-identifying as nontheists, and they looking to form their own clubs and school groups. In fact, in 2010, the Secular Student Alliance, the nonprofit organization that assists secular college groups organize and thrive, hired a full-time staff person just to handle the requests and issues stemming from high school students and the groups they are forming. However, one person and one organization will not be enough to counter the myriad ways that countless school officials across the country are trying to prevent atheist student clubs.

The problem is so egregious that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued “Guidelines for the Equal Access Act” in June 2011 to address the numerous complaints of groups being denied permission to form school groups. The Guidelines stress that the unpopular content of a group’s speech cannot be used to discriminate against them or deprive them access to school facilities. 

The Guidelines and the Equal Access Act itself, however, are being disregarded by school officials in schools across the country.  Atheist, agnostic, and humanist students are being denied their rights to gather together as people with a common worldview.  Not only are the groups being denied the right to form by schools, but also the rights to advertise in a school newspaper, post signs in designated club areas, and use any other mediums or facilities given to other extracurricular groups—all forms of access protected by the Equal Access Act, according to Secretary Duncan in the Guidelines.

Students are being singled out by school officials and administrators, making them easy targets for bullying from other students. These are three examples of school officials and administrators violating students’ rights during the 2010-2011 school year.

  • Brian Lisco’s efforts to form a secular club at Stephen Austin High School in Texas were stymied by argumentative administrators who attempted to dilute the club’s mission by requiring the group to be called a “Philosophy Club” and not affiliate with the Secular Student Alliance.  Only after a USA Today reporter called the school for comment did administrators decide to follow the law and consent to the formation of Lisco’s club.
  • Duncan Henderson was informed that freethinkers’ clubs were not allowed at his school after he put in a request at his junior high school in Alabama.  When notified that school officials would be breaking the law, the principal told Henderson the group would need a faculty sponsor.  The principal was then hostile towards the proposed sponsor, causing the sponsor to back out, according to Henderson’s father.  The administrators finally allowed Henderson to start his club in July 2011 after the Secular Student Alliance filed a lawsuit on Henderson’s behalf.
  • Skyler Curtis was eventually allowed to start a freethinker group at Rising Sun High School in Maryland, but only after the word “atheist” was removed from the group name.  Once the group started promoting itself, however, member students began receiving verbal and physical threats from their peers.  Not only were the club’s flyers torn down, but a parent of a Rising Sun High School student wrote a letter to the local newspaper in support of the unwarranted aggression.

Even though the law is on the side of secular students, those charged with enforcing and respecting the law, such as school administrators, students, and parents, are using intimidation, bullying, and coercion to block atheists, agnostics, and humanists from equal access. Nontheistic students should not be made to take extreme means, such as lawsuits and media attention, in order to form a school club.

The Secular Coalition for America believes that nontheists and secular allies need to stand up for the rights of students and force school officials and administrators to enforce the Equal Access Act when appropriate to ensure nontheistic students have the same opportunities to form social groups and clubs as other students.

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