JT Eberhard, director of SSA’s high school program, says he hopes that both atheist and religious students having clubs will help foster a dialogue.
“I also hope it will let the atheist students know that you can be an atheist and its okay," Eberhard told Religion News Service. "You are still a good person. We want to say: Here is a place where you can feel that."
There were about a dozen clubs of this ilk at the beginning of the 2011-12 academic year — a number that increased to 39 in 17 states by the start of summer break. The clubs are student-led, and SSA only provides information and guidance upon a student’s request.
Some clubs exist in states that have large numbers of people who claim no religious affiliation, such as New York, Washington and California. Others are located in more religion-centered states, with North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas all claiming at least one high school with a club for atheists. Since January of this year, students representing 73 different high schools have requested “starter kits,” according to SSA.
Some students have no issue launching an atheist club assuming they meet their school’s criteria, which usually entails obtaining a faculty sponsor and demonstrating student interest.
Others are met with administrative resistance, like at Melbourne High School in Melbourne, Fla., where administrators rejected an atheist club on the basis that it was “too controversial.” Students at another Florida high school were told that no religious clubs were permitted, even though there was a school Christian club in existence. The principal of Houston’s La Porte High School denied students the use of the word “atheist” due to the fact “it could disrupt the educational process.”
In such instances, Eberhard usually intervenes, reminding administrators that the Equal Access Act grants students the right to form a club.
Earlier this month, Chelsea Stanton, a senior and atheist at Collingswood High School in New Jersey, also used the law to her advantage in defending her refusal to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
“That’s the beauty of America — that you don’t have to follow the same religion the majority does,” she said.
In Rhode Island, Cranston High School West student Jessica Ahlquist objected to a prayer banner the school had on display. The 16-year-old brought the case to court, receiving a January mandate for the school prayer banner to be brought down because it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Ahlquist has also received a scholarship fund for more than $62,000 from the American Humanist Association.
Ahlquist was also honored with the Humanist Pioneer Award at this year’s annual American Humanist Association in New Orleans, the Christian Post reported.