Pisgah High School in Canton, NC, refused to allow a group of atheist students to form an extra-curricular club. Even in the evangelical-heavy Smoky Mountains, that’s illegal.
Pisgah High School refused to allow atheist club.
It began last summer, when a small group of atheist students decided to form an after-school club. They put in their request, like every other club, but their application was turned down. They met with Assistant Principal Connie Weeks, who told them that she needed to “look into” whether or not they could form their group. More meetings followed and, eventually, the students were told that their group just “didn’t fit in” at Pisgah High School. Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, points out:
“What does that even mean, it doesn’t ‘fit in?!’ That’s why a lot of student groups form in the first place: because the kids who don’t fit in with most of their classmates want to create a community for themselves. Weeks is basically telling students who are already marginalized that they can’t have a group because… they’re too marginalized. “
Sure. Why not? After all, this is North Carolina, where Gawd’s special people get to run things. Except that they don’t. Because we have a law about this. The Equal Access Act, which was passed in 1984, states that:
“It shall be unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.”
The EAA says that if a school allows one after-school club to meet on the premises, they must allow any and all groups to do the same. This includes religious — or non-religious — groups. So, Pisgah High School is in violation of this law.
Secular students sought help.
The students, knowing that Pisgah High School was violating the EAA, reached out to the Secular Student Alliance. The SSA sent a letter to Pisgah High School. It was ignored. So the SSA contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to help them get through to the school administrators. The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina (ACLU NC) came aboard, too. The combined group sent another letter to the Pisgah High School officials. After laying out their understanding of the situation and what the EAA and Constitution say about it, the letter ended, in part:
“Preventing Pisgah High students from forming an SSA group not only violates the law but is also bad policy. Nonreligious and non-Christian students within Pisgah High should have an equal opportunity to make their school a better place for themselves and their classmates. If students want to build a community as a nonreligious minority, they should be allowed to do so.”
And, we are happy to report, it worked! As of today, Pisgah High School has a Secular Student Alliance group. Two faculty members volunteered to be sponsors, and the group is expected to hold their first meeting this week. Congratulations to Kalei Wilson and her brother, Ben, the students who fought to have the group on campus. As if that weren’t cool enough, the FFRF has awarded both Kalei and Ben a $1,000 scholarship as student activists of the month. They will receive the prize in person at the FFRF’s regional convention in Raleigh in May. Well done! Hopefully, this victory will make it easier for other schools to form SSA groups.
Atheism on the rise in America
We may see battles like this more and more often as the number of self-professed atheists in America grows. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who identify as atheists is 2.4%, up from 1.6% in 2007. That number is even higher when you include atheists who believe in some kind of “universal spirit” (14%). It is even higher when you include those who identify with a particular religion but do not believe in God (7%).
The battle at Pisgah High School is indicative of the greater one in the United States. While Christianity is still the majority religion, atheism and other faiths are on the rise. The Equal Access Act will undoubtedly be called into play as schools grapple with these changing demographics. What they need to remember is that both the EAA and the U.S. Constitution protect all religions. Thankfully, we have groups like the Secular Student Alliance, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU to make sure all religions are treated equally.