When JT Eberhard of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), an organization providing support to nontheistic students, received a letter from a teacher bragging about blocking formation of an atheist club, the lack of a return address didn’t slow him down. He used the email address provided by the sender to locate the teacher and alert administrators.
In his letter, the anonymous teacher asserts that educators should treat students with respect but are not “obligated to protect those who choose to be deviants in society.” Which means, of course, this teacher was completely justified in violating atheist students’ rights to form a club as guaranteed by the Equal Access Act. Don’t think so? Neither did Eberhard. He demanded that the school rectify the situation or face legal repercussions.
This is only one of many letters the SSA has been forced to send high schools. Despite the legal protections afforded student clubs, school staff and students resist atheist clubs far too often. Eberhard told the Huffington Post, “This is not the first time we've gotten word of a teacher/administrator like this. Not even close. The reality is that more than half of high school secular groups that attempt to form experience some kind of resistance from their faculty or administration.”
Brian Lisco learned this firsthand when he tried to form an SSA-affiliated club at his Houston, Texas high school. Lisco says the principal at Stephen Austin High School acquiesced to the club—if students would agree to rename it the philosophy club and drop affiliation with the SSA. Lisco refused, and administrators dragged their feet for three months. The school finally allowed the club when they were contacted by USA Today for comment.
Atheists are just the latest in a long line of students who have faced bullying and discrimination because of their sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, appearance or language. And they, like those before them, are standing up against inequity. Secular student clubs are springing up in high schools across the country despite the attempts of some to stop them.
Teaching Tolerance was quick to recognize and support atheist students in our article, The Unaffiliated Unite, in the Fall 2011 issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine. As the article points out, just because no one has tried to form an atheist club at your school doesn’t mean there are no religiously unaffiliated students on your campus. According to the 2012 Public Religion Research Institute Millennial Values Survey, 25 percent of 18 to 24 year olds identify as religiously unaffiliated.
You can make your school a welcoming environment for these students. Start with something small—like this Teaching Tolerance lesson—or go all the way and sponsor a secular club. SSA has comprehensive group starter packets and offers resources for educators and legal support as well.
There’s a reason this teacher didn’t sign his letter. Hate likes to be anonymous. By speaking up in support of atheist students in your school, you sign your name to a far more powerful cause—tolerance.
Pettway is associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.
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