Student-Run Secularist Clubs Encountering Problems In Schools

Efforts by non-religious public school students to form after-school clubs are running into administrative roadblocks, USA Today has reported.

The students are using a federal law called the Equal Access Act. The legislation, which passed in 1984 with strong support from the Religious Right, states that if a public secondary school allows any non-curriculum student-run clubs to meet during non-instructional time, it must allow them all. (The only exception is for clubs that might be disruptive to the school’s mission.)

Students all over America have used the Act, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1990, to form Christian clubs. Attendance is voluntary, and school staff members do not participate in such gatherings.

Now, an increasing number of atheist students are using the law to form atheist or humanistic clubs, and some of them are running into problems.

USA Today reported several instances of discrimination against atheist student clubs. The Secular Student Alliance (SSA), a national organization that promotes atheism and humanism and has chapters at more than 200 colleges, is trying to start clubs at high schools around the country. The group says its student supporters have faced hostility and, in many cases, have been unable to form clubs.

J.T. Eberhard of the Columbus, Ohio-based SSA, says he wants to launch 50 clubs around the country.

Eberhard told USA Today that he has succeeded in creating five new clubs, but “three had a struggle and six more are still stymied.” Of the 17 clubs already operating, two have to meet secretly.

“High school is hard for anybody, and we are among the most reviled groups in America,” Eberhard said. “These clubs give kids a chance to socialize with like-minded people. There’s nothing in our mission statement about tearing down religion.”

Schools that deny atheist students equal access often claim that the groups are “hateful.” At a public school in Oklahoma, a faculty member who volunteered to serve as the requisite adviser was told by the administration that it would be a “bad career move,” leading the teacher to resign from the advisory role. Without an adviser, the club could not continue.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn told the newspaper that this type of intimidation from public school officials is “an illegal end-run around the constitutional rights of non-religious students.”

Students who seek to form gay-straight alliances have also run into trouble. At Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi, Texas, school officials recently announced that they would shut down all student-run clubs rather than allow a gay-straight alliance to meet.

AU has helped non-religious students form school clubs in the past. In 1998, a student in Grand Blanc, Mich., tried to start an atheist club. When school officials tried to block him, the young man, Micah White, called Americans United. AU attorneys contacted the school, and officials quickly relented.