Student Battles for Secularism in Hostile High School
by Micah White
The following article is from the Secular
Humanist Bulletin, Volume 15, Number 1.
Becoming my school's number one enemy didn't take a single insult, a single disruption
in class, or a single disciplinary action. Instead it took seven simple words: "I
want to start an Atheist Club." These seven words landed me in a world of trouble.
From threats of suspension to threats of eternal damnation from fellow students, these
seven simple words have changed my life.
When my family moved to Grand Blanc, Michigan, from Columbia, Maryland, shortly before
my sophomore year of high school, I was amazed by the sudden shift from the liberal
environment of Columbia to the fundamentalist Christian environment of Grand Blanc. For a
while I kept my atheist thoughts to myself, content with reading Free Inquiry and other
nonbeliever magazines, but, after reading an editorial in my school newspaper that
demanded creationism be taught in biology class, I decided enough was enough. In October
of my junior year I started to form the Atheist Club.
My school has a clearly conservative Christian philosophy that speaks loudly through
its actions. For example, the administration punished a student last year because he wrote
negatively about the school's math program on his personal Web page outside of school. In
another decision the school wouldn't allow two girls to attend a dance together. The
school board has even considered banning the color black! So when I decided to start the
Atheist Club, to counteract some of the fundamentalism in my school and give a place for
curious students and atheists alike to talk, I knew that there would be some difficulty.
As soon as I made my intentions to start an Atheist Club clear, all attempts on my
behalf to talk to the vice principal in charge of clubs was blocked. The vice principal
was curiously always out of his office, and when I left messages with the secretary he
never responded. I set up a meeting with him personally, only to have it canceled hours
before it was scheduled to occur. When I did finally confront him, he literally ran down
the hall to avoid talking to me. At that instant I knew I would need more help. So I sent
out several e-mails, one of them to Americans United for Separation of Church and State,
detailing what had happened so far. Meanwhile, I continued to press the issue, but the
vice principal refused to talk to me unless I agreed to change the name of the club from
"Atheist Club" to "Alternative Religions Club." His refusal to give me
a fair opportunity to form an Atheist Club was illegal, but there was nothing I could do.
The only adult support I had in the school was also under fire from the administration
because he was my "sponsor." And those few students who didn't hate the idea of
the Atheist Club saw it as merely "attention getting," or "trouble
Luckily, within a week I was contacted by Jenni Straus and later Ayesha Khan from
Americans United. After discussing the situation, we decided the best course of action
would be to send a letter to my school detailing my legal right to form the club. This
letter was met with little response other than announcement of the school's new official
position: I didn't have a faculty sponsor and therefore couldn't be allowed to form the
club. This was true only because the teacher who was previously willing to sponsor the
club was now unwilling due, I believe, to administrative pressure. A couple of weeks later
we sent a second letter. This time the focus was on the fact that lacking faculty
sponsorship is not a valid reason for rejection, an opinion that was backed by case law.
This letter demanded that the school "facilitate the formation of the club within two
weeks." Less than two weeks after my school received this letter I was called into
the principal's office, where I was told that I was now allowed to have the club, that I
could keep the name, and that I would be able to meet without a sponsor.
I don't think the fact that I had started an Atheist Club in the heart of an
ultra-conservative school hit home for many people until I appeared on the front-page of
the local paper. The community response was varied. I received the typical call from the
concerned Christian who wanted to warn me about the devil. But I also received calls from
two atheists who offered me encouragement and support. Reaction from students was, and
still is, generally negative, Atheist Club signs are ripped down and vandalized with the
typical "Burn in Hell" message. Although there was no official response to the
Atheist Club from the administration, the president of the Bible Study received a letter
from the superintendent thanking him for his defense of Christianity.
Over 40 students attended the first Atheist Club meeting, even with the peer pressure
not to attend! That leads one to believe that maybe even in the heart of fundamentalism
there will always be some people who are willing to think freely when given the chance.
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