Students Protest After Duquesne University Rejects Atheist Group

This is a guest post by Cate Laskovics. Cate is the president of the Secular Alliance at the University of Pittsburgh. For more background on this article, click here.

Yesterday afternoon, more than twenty students from three different universities came together to support nontheistic and secular students at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh who are being denied the ability to form a secular club on their campus.

Some backstory: On November 1st, Nick Shadowen, a senior at Duquesne, submitted the Duquesne Secular Society constitution for approval by the Student Government Board Organization Oversight Committee. On November 7th, the constitution and formal recognition were denied.

The Secular Alliance at the University of Pittsburgh got wind of this denial and was disappointed that Duquesne students would be deprived of the amazing benefits that a secular club can provide: Open and honest discourse, a safe space to express ideas and beliefs, and the sense that your university supports you even though they may disagree with you.

Feeling the need to act, we organized a protest to promote awareness of the denial of the Duquesne Secular Society and what Duquesne was missing out on. Although it was only 37 degrees outside, students from Duquesne, Pitt, and Carnegie-Mellon stood for an hour (from noon to 1:00p) attempting to show real faces of nonbelief, that of average college students. The protest went without incident, and the police that arrived were respectful.

While Duquesne is a Catholic university, it nonetheless has a Muslim student group, a Jewish student group, and a gay/straight alliance. Shadowen had hopes that Duquesne would stick to its commitment to diversity and accept the presence of a secular group to enhance this diversity. He said, “Anyone who has opened a newspaper at any point in their lives knows that religion is a serious topic that continues to impact our world. It is the role of any university, religious or otherwise, to provide an environment conducive to the discussion of serious topics.”

Since the group is not allowed to promote itself on campus, it is tough to judge just how many other Duquesne students would support or join the Duquesne Secular Society. However, junior Colin Strager-Rice, co-organizer of the DSS, was optimistic about how the protest went: “The purpose of the event was to increase the DSS’ presence to the student body and, hopefully, provide an incentive for the SGA to reconsider their decision. At this point, I don’t think we can rightfully spectate on the ‘success’ of the event. Only time will tell. That being said, we got our message out to a lot of people today. The individuals I talked to were very responsive and didn’t seem likely to brush our message off.”

To follow up with this event, Duquesne Secular Society and the Secular Alliance are asking that everyone show their support for the group by visiting www.PGHthink.com and send the president of Duquesne a letter asking him to reconsider the application of the Duquesne Secular Society.

***Update***: A spokesperson for the school explained Duquesne’s decision this way:

“All students are certainly welcome here. But, formally recognizing a student group whose main purpose is opposition to belief in God is not aligned with our mission,” said Bridget Fare, a Duquesne spokeswoman.


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.

  • Kornchamber_666_666

    Why would atheists attend a catholic school? 

    • http://www.facebook.com/owen.chris Chris Owen

      Yeah, this feels like a non-issue, like going into McDonald’s and demanding spaghetti. If this were a state-sponsored school, they’d have a justified fight.

      • Anonymous

        That would work if they were consistent on a pro-Catholic stand.  Being a Catholic school rather than a school that’s a proponent of generic theism, they wouldn’t be sponsoring one non-Catholic organization and not another.  Judaism and and Islam still fall outside of Catholicism. Just because Judaism and Islam are theistic, or even related monotheistic religions, doesn’t help their statement.

    • Charles Black

      Maybe because they don’t have much choice furthering their education?

    • Tiffany

      For many reasons. I’m an atheist and I attend a Baptist college. And I get that  question enough from the religious. The college I attend is great, academically. It’s one of the top in the state. It’s also one of the few that offered the degree that I wanted to pursue (originally). The campus is gorgeous. The food doesn’t suck, etc.

    • Anonymous

      In some cases they don’t become an atheist or identify as such until they are at the school. Or the parents kind of force them to go there. It’s the same reason some gay people attend religious colleges

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anthony-Okafor/1759887752 Anthony Okafor

      Let me give you a scenario which I think is true for most of these atheists. I am an atheist who recently graduated from Community College, but my mother would only let me attend Seton Hall University, so basically I have no choice

  • Anonymous

    The university has a Jewish group (Hillel) and a Muslim Student Association, so the denial of a secular group is just your regular bigotry; we’ll respect you as long as you believe in a god but if you don’t believe in any god, you are not welcome here.

    Do they have the legal right to do this? Probably. Does that make what they’re doing right or the protest against it worthless? Not at all. Change “atheist” for “LGBT” and I’m betting no one would doubt that the university was wrong and that protests were in order. The university also has an LGBT group by the way, so apparently atheists are just one particular form of hellbound sinners they don’t want to officially recognize.

  • Anonymous

    “Yeah, this feels like a non-issue, like going into McDonald’s and
    demanding spaghetti. If this were a state-sponsored school, they’d have a
    justified fight.  ”

    It’s more like going into a Whites-only country club and demanding they accept all races. 

    But you’re right, this isn’t a legal battle.  It’s a social one.

    Separation of church and state means that these schools have the right to discriminate if they want.  But with government out of the conversation, it’s up to society to talk about how we handle faith.  And discrimination is not how I want “educational” institutions to operate.

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      Do they receive federal funds?

    • Jls917

      best said so far

  • Anonymous

    Great post, Cate!  I scrambled to my computer to write something about it this morning, but saw you’d already got it covered.  Keep kicking ass!

  • TychaBrahe

    Ya know, there’s a certain satisfaction in succeeding anyway.

    Get someone at the school paper to cover the story and include information about where you meet.  Call yourselves a study group and you can usually meet in the library.  If you can’t put up notices on school bulletin boards, put them on your dorm room doors.  

    And since college is a time when one is supposed to mature, grow up and stop expecting to be catered to.  Everything in life is a trade.  You want to be good at something, then you have to practice it.  If you want to be healthy, you have to eat right and exercise.  If you go to a school run by a religious faith, you have to expect the tenets of that faith to have some influence over your life.  Sorry, but that’s reality, and expecting otherwise is entitled.

    Say you went to BYU just because it was a good school and offered your major.  You decide that since you aren’t LDS you shouldn’t have to abide by the bans on alcohol and premarital sex.  Well, no.  You went to a school with these limitations, and you have to live with those limitations.  You want other policies, go elsewhere.

    • Sdorst

      BYU has an explicit ban against alcohol and premarital sex. If Duquesne University had a similar ban against nonreligious student organizations, you would have a point. I doubt that they have such a ban.

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      Your second paragraph, “Get someone at the school paper. . .”

      contradicts the rest of your post.

    • Jls917

      excellant

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Reed/692599362 Paul Reed

    “not aligned with our mission”..??
    It’s a university. Their mission is education.
    Then again, it’s a catholic university, so maybe that’s not their mission…

    • Rieux

      Right. There is an element to this event of protesting Darth Vader because he refused to allow a group of stormtroopers to hold meetings of their Rebel Alliance Roolz Club on Deck 12 of the Death Star. What exactly do we expect from a foundationally religious institution?

      That said, there’s nothing wrong with rubbing the noses of such institutions in their blatant ideological discrimination, their obvious disinterest in the free marketplace of ideas.

      It shouldn’t surprise anyone that religious institutions suppress dissent from their dogma. It’s worthwhile to show the public that that renders the supposed educational principles of those institutions a hypocritical joke, though.

  • Rick

    I think everyone here agrees the really strange thing is how the school considers this secular club to go against their mission, but don’t feel the same way about the jewish and muslim groups.  So it seems the that the common thread to be an acceptable group is the belief in a deity; any deity.  The student group should change their name and charter to be a Pastafarian group and the school would have a hard time denying it based on their recognition of other religious affiliation groups.   

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sarah-Venhartly/100003164475597 Sarah Venhartly

    Duquesne certainly has the legal right to disallow the group, just as freethinkers have the right to protest the decision.  The rally was a good start and pointed out the hypocrisy of the largest catholic U in PA denying a voice to the 15%, who don’t bite (great signs!).  Heck, even McDonald’s changed their Happy Meals in response to protests. 

    By the way, this very university sponsors Darwin Day each year.  Why?  Their website at http://www.sepa.duq.edu/darwin2011/why.shtml says “Universities exist to explore ideas and to further knowledge. The fundamental role of the University is one of exploration and sharing of ideas. ”  Seems like someone in administration has forgotten that basic tenet.

    • Jls917

      really…darwin…what a super anthropoligist..that’s all he was

  • Erp

    There are some slight differences between the four clubs that Duquesne does and does not support

    1. I believe the Catholic religion considers Jews to have one legitimate contract with God and that they just haven’t accepted yet the second and greater contract with God. 
    2. The Duquesne LGBT group is limited in what it can do (e.g., I doubt it would be allowed to support same-sex marriage).  It is also not a student group but rather a university controlled group to which students belong.  The Catholic church recognizes that one can be gay in orientation and a good Catholic; it just says you shouldn’t have sex outside of a church sanctioned marriage.
    3. Not sure about the Muslim group which is closest to the situation of an atheistic group.   However it seems to be inactive.

  • Justin Miyundees

    How can the DSS be so mean?  Everyone knows that if Dusquesne University gets a secular club, Tinkerbell will die.  

  • T-Rex

    Really? I’m so tired of hearing about how atheists are constantly the victims of bigotry at RELIGIOUS institutions. WTF did you really expect when you enrolled there? I’m as anti-religion as they come, but to cry foul after choosing to attend a school that is based around religion is just rediculous. Not a very rational choice. Maybe some critical thinking skills would have been handy when deciding on the school to attend for your “higher education”. Get a grip. 

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      It’s their choice to attend DuQ for whatever reasons
      they want. They can promote their group  on campus in
      in any legal manner. If they get some students to rethink their
      beliefs, what’s the harm?

    • Jls917

      maybe the school of pharamacy…one of the best…but there’s Temple and many more in other states…why press the issue?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    There is one, and only one reason why Duquesne even tolerates Jews, Muslims, and LGBT students being students there, and that is those groups’ ability to bring public pressure against the university for their prejudice. It was not too long ago that universities, even secular ones, could reject applicants for such reasons with impunity. That was when society in general still agreed with such discrimination. The same reason is the only reason why Duquesne tolerates the official Jewish, Muslim, and gay/straight alliance groups now. It’s only because they’ll face a storm of bad publicity if they say no.

    Atheists just do not yet have enough backing from society to bring enough pressure to bear. It is still generally socially acceptable to discriminate. That will change, but only through a long and constant struggle. Keep up the effort.

    The oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed. You have to work for it. Freedom is never given to anybody. Privileged classes never give up their privileges without strong resistance. –Martin Luther King Jr.

  • mike c.

    To be fair, the Muslim and Jewish groups both believe in the same god (their religions all grew from the same source as the Christians). If there was a Hindu group then maybe they would be inconsistent.

  • Renshia

    Probably for the best. This way they are not put on the “to be burned at the stake” list.


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