Southern Illinois University Rejects Atheist Student Group… Then Quickly Backtracks

The Secular Student Alliance at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is now an official student organization… but that almost didn’t happen.

The Undergraduate Student Government voted against their existence earlier this week:

At the USG meeting Tuesday, five senators voted no to the approval, three voted yes and two abstained from taking a stance. Spencer Tribble, USG vice-president, said he believes the senators may have allowed their religious beliefs to get in the way of voting objectively.

Benjamin Warren, a senior from Bloomington studying outdoor recreation, said it was a disappointment to hear Senate members reject the group’s approval.

“The first ‘no’ vote that we got, I just knew it was over,” he said. “The fact that even one person would say no to allowing a student organization on campus, I looked at another member shaking my head at the fact we weren’t going to get in.”

So what were the reasons against allowing the atheist group to get the same access to rooms and funding and table space at organization fairs as every other student group on campus?

“(The senators) said it came off as if they were mocking other religions,” [Tribble] said. “That’s when all the difficulty came about.”

So discussing and criticizing religion, doing community service as non-theists, bringing in speakers who might challenge students’ ways of thinking, and creating meaningful dialogue with other faith groups on campus = Mockery.

According to the SIU group’s Facebook page, the senators also believed the atheists would cause “controversy on campus” (as if that could only be a bad thing).

All this, after the senators apparently spoke about their “inclusive excellence.”

Thankfully, a couple of the senators “voiced displeasure with the results” and got the body to reconsider the decision. The SSA members returned to make their case and some senators (I’m not sure how many) changed their minds.

Fortunately, they came to the right decision — but it’s too bad it had to come after an irresponsible wrong one.

Still, kudos to the SSA members for speaking up at the USG meeting and for smartly going straight to the Daily Egyptian campus paper with this story. If people don’t know what happened, they can’t do anything to prevent it from happening again.

(Thanks to David for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Frank Bellamy

    This is why it is crazy and irresponsible for a university to give the power to recognize student groups to student government. Administrators may not like atheist groups either, but they know they can be sued for discriminating.

    • Anonymous

      I disagree; I was in student government in college, and it was our money activity fees that went to student groups, so we could to decide whether or not they were valid. The closest thing to controversy came when the GSA on campus sought recognition. One asshole made some bullshit argument about them, and he ended up being the only member of the body voting no. Every other group passed unanimously while I was there.

      Now, this group turned out to be idiotic, but they self-corrected their error. That still sounds like a better deal than going through bureaucratic mess with the administration, and this group of representatives seems exceptionally obtuse. 

      • Frank Bellamy

        I’m not going to go into detail, but I’ve run SSA groups both on campuses where student government controls the entire student organization system (funding, websites, room reservations, everything), and on  a campus where student government controls nothing, so I can tell you from experience that letting student government make decisions is always a bad idea. These people are not professionals and therefor don’t really know or care what they are doing, and everything turns into a popularity contest.

        The argument that students pay the activity fee is just silly. Students pay tuition that helps pay professors salaries too, does that mean that students should decide which professors get tenure and which get fired? Or which buildings get renovated when? Should we just do away with administrators and let students run everything?

        To come back to the student organization context, a student organization usually does not exist to represent or serve the entire student body. It exists to serve a particular small subset of the student body that shares some common element, sometimes a common element that other students may not like or may think a waste of time. That need does not fit well with a democratic form of government. It requires professionals whose job is to support all groups fairly. It is the same reason federal judges are not elected and serve for life (technically good behavior) in this country.

        • Guest

          . . . at my institution, at least, students DO have a voice about administrative decisions.  They can vote on campus renovation plans.  And while they may have little practical power, student liaisons get to voice their questions and concerns to search committees.  And, of course, if you end up with semester after semester of students claiming that a particular instructor does a terrible job, it’s something that should be investigated/considered. 

          Now, sometimes, a student saying, for example, “My professor can’t teach” really just means, “I dislike the grade I received,” or “I am having trouble understanding an accent I’m not used to.”  So yes, it’s dangerous to give students total power.  But your post has the tone that students shouldn’t have any say, which doesn’t seem reasonable, either.

          (And, frankly, administrators aren’t above letting policy decisions turn into stupid popularity contests, either, depending on how crazy/healthy a particular board is, but that’s an entirely different, and possibly inescapable, problem.)

  • Anonymous

    “came off as if they were mocking other religions”

    Now there’s a slippery slope. Their belief in a deity mocks my solemn belief in non-
    theism. Their belief that non-Christian will end up a lake of fire goes beyond mocking.

    I’m glad that the group was able to be officially formed in the end.

  • http://www.bricewgilbert.blogspot.com Brice Gilbert

    Based on current precedence in cases of student rights actually allow for them to not allow an atheist group if it caused an uproar in the school? It’s stupid, but it seems free speech is taken away if the speech is disruptive. Does this only apply to speech while in an active class? Hallways? After school? The very discussion of such a group?

  • Cutencrunchy

    Kudos for the acknowledgment.  (We may).. ‘have allowed (our) religious beliefs to get in the way of voting objectively.’ but what about all the times there isn’t a spotlight and call for accountability? How often are others swept under the rug for the simple lack of not having a big enough spotlight.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    “(The senators) said it came off as if they were mocking other religions,”

    What came off like that? Their silly bigoted fantasies about non-believers?
    Wow some of these “leaders” sure are timid. “Oooh dose meany weany ol’ atheists are gonna make fun of our poor widdo bewiefs! Oooh dey’re so scaywee wid deir big, stwong awguments an’ wogic!  We gotta keep dem out!

    Kudos to the strength of character of the student senators who voted for it and who prevailed upon the others to change their vote.

    As for the two who abstained in the first vote, I have even less respect for them than those who initially voted no. Too chickenshit to even take a stand? And you’re called a “senator”?

    I’d be very interested in the tally of the final vote.

    • Anomalyzero

      The initial vote was 3 yes 5 no and 2 abstained, the second vote ended up being  unanimous but only after the president broke protocol and scolded them like the bunch of little children they are.  

  • Matto the Hun

    Right, so these 5 douchebags felt like their religion was being mocked  just because atheists want to form a student group. But their belied is just fine. The belief that anyone, religious or not who doesn’t believe in their God or doesn’t love/fear him enough or doesn’t follow his impossible and conflicting commands gets and deserved infinite torture. Exactly who is more insulting here?

  • http://eviltwit.wordpress.com/ eviltwit

    Glad they didn’t let it get swept under the carpet and stood up for themselves.  I love the quote from the USG VP.  They “may” have let their beliefs get in the way?  There’s no “may” about it.  What other reason could there possibly have been to vote against the SSA’s existence on campus?  Yeah, I guess at first look, promoting scientific inquiry, critical thinking, civil rights and the separation of church and state didn’t meet their “student-life requirements”.  Imbeciles.

  • Rich Wilson

    Consider what being a student group means (money for events, inclusion in various campus calendars and listings etc.) and who pays for all that (compulsory student fees).

    Try denying a Christian, Muslim or Jewish group and see how that flies.

  • Charles Black

    The only think religious people are good at is bullying those who don’t agree with them into submission. Take it away & their power collapses.

  • Charles Black

    *Thing* not think

  • Jon Santana

    I hope the word “other” in “mocking other religions” isn’t the standard fare of religious people considering atheism a religion. I fear that is the case, though.

  • Anonymous

     Wow, so much stupidity and douchiness is this story, where to start…

    First of all, how pathetic are those (presumably christian) students in their faith, if the mere knowledge that atheists exist gives them panic attacks? Secondly, every second sentence out of the typical fundy’s mouth is “The fool has said in his heart, there is no god”, and yet we atheists are the mockers and the bad guys. How does that work?

    Finally, doesn’t every religion mock and blaspheme every other religion? Even if the members of a given religion aren’t actively mocking the others – which they usually are – the mere existence of their religion is implicit mockery of every other religion, since every religion is supposed to be the One True Religion. Also, every religion has beliefs which are blasphemous to every other religion. For example, christians say if you don’t believe Jesus was a god, you will go to hell. Muslims say if you do believe Jesus was a god, you will go to hell. Islam and christianity are simply incompatible, not to mention judaiism etc. etc. And yet, at least in the west, incompatible religions are perfectly happy to cozy up with each other, bonded by a common love of irrational dogma and authoritarianism, and united against people who dare to think for themselves.

  • Steve

    I think the first amendment of The Constitution needed to be invoked here. This is about freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Why on Earth is the student senate allowed to vote on such things? A university education is not just about inculcating information. It is about teaching people to grow up and act responsibly. Maybe, there should not be an activity fee to distribute. If people feel strongly enough about something to band together and form a campus organization, let them support it financially or raise the money they need. The university provides a lot of support by just letting these groups use empty space to meet.

  • Billy

    If they were thinking Pastafarianism I can certainly understand their hesitation.Any serious discussion where someone mentions that just irks me.

  • Miranda

    Funny, this atheist group would “cause controversy” but the guy who stands in front of our library preaching about how everyone on our campus is going to hell because by getting educated we hate God, that’s totally fine. I knew I shouldn’t have gone to school in the South


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