The latest issue of Freethought Today (May, 2012) tells a wonderful story of a student who tried to begin an atheist group at his high school… only to have it denied.
That’s when FFRF stepped in.
Colin Muller, a junior at George Walton Comprehensive High School in Marietta, Ga., was denied approval from his school in April to start a new student group titled Freethinkers for Acceptance Cooperation and Trust. (FACT). The school has more than 70 approved student groups, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Muslim Student Association.
Proposals for creating new groups were heard April 18th by a school committee.
The application for FACT included information on the group’s purpose, activities, a list of 10 prospective members and a faculty supervisor. The application described the club this way:
“The purpose of the club is to bring freethinking students together who are surrounded by a predominantly religious society; together the students will be able to find a support group and help each other with problems associated with being a freethinker (such as ‘coming out’ to your parents that you are not religious, or seeing the meaning in life). The mission of the club is to show the Walton community that freethinkers (atheist, agnostics, Unitarians or other non-mainstream religious affiliates) can very well live a life of high morals and be genuinely good people without reporting to a higher power.”
It didn’t matter. The committee rejected Colin’s group.
The rejection letter said:
“The committee has decided that your club has not been accepted. There are so many clubs existing at Walton that part of the decision making process includes making sure that clubs do not compete for the same members. Additionally, we cannot accept a club that holds or espouses any particular religious, political or philosophical beliefs, is physical in nature, or does not have a service or curriculum component.”
Not surprisingly, Colin wanted more of an explanation. He was told that the committee could “see more kids joining the other new clubs” instead of FACT. In addition, he was told FACT was too similar to the already-existing Philosophy Club.
Colin appealed but was told that the denial was final and that the committee only approved the “best” of the proposed groups.
After the denial, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter of complaint to the Cobb County School District. Elliott wrote that the denial was a violation of both the federal Equal Access Act and the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. The Equal Access Act provides that schools receiving federal funds cannot deny equal treatment to noncurriculum student groups on the basis of their religious, political or philosophical views.
“If [the Fellowship of Christian Athletes] is allowed club status, then the school may not censor FACT… Minority views are protected under the First Amendment. It is not permissible for a committee to vote on group approval based on which views will be the most popular. The school should train any persons who make approval decisions, whether staff or students, on how to make decisions in a viewpoint neutral manner.”
On April 29th, Colin was informed that his group was approved.
Ironically, his initial application focused on the mistreatment of atheists:
“This club would not be formed if it were not for the lack of acceptance of freethinkers in the USA. In this day, there are still 50% of Americans who say that they would not vote for a well-qualified atheist candidate solely based on the grounds that said candidate is an atheist.”
Meetings for FACT will begin at Walton High School this fall.
[Several parts of the article have been adapted/edited from the original publication.]