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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 making."

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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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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