This Is the Real Reason an Atheist Club Isn’t Forming at Pisgah High School

I spent most of Friday afternoon speaking to multiple people involved with the Pisgah High School saga and you won’t believe what’s happening there now… I thought the story ended after I wrote my last post about it, but there’s so much more to it. And it’s nasty stuff.

First, a quick recap:

Earlier this year, student Ben Wilson attempted to begin an atheist group at the Canton, North Carolina school and claimed a school official told him he should just try joining a different club because this one wouldn’t “fit in” with the community. The Secular Student Alliance sent a letter to the school on his behalf, stating that the school had to allow the group to form, but no response was sent back.

Ben left the school after first semester, so his sister Kalei (pronounced KAY-lee) decided to continue what he started… and she was also denied. That’s when the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the state’s ACLU got involved, sending a letter of their own. The school quickly agreed to allow the club to form after that.

Kalei Wilson

Almost immediately, students expressed interest in joining the club and two faculty members offered to be the club’s sponsors.

But Kalei made it clear last week that the club would not be forming after a series of threats and verbal attacks.

That gets us up to speed. As I said, I thought the story ended there. It wasn’t a happy ending but I couldn’t blame Kalei for her decision. If I were receiving threats and feeling picked on at school, I’d probably do the same thing. But I had to admit it was an abrupt 180 from a student who had already shown an incredible amount of courage…

After making a public records request on Friday, a district official sent me a copy of a letter sent by their lawyer, Patrick Smathers, to the ACLU and FFRF.

In it, Smathers goes through what he learned during his investigation, regarding what the school did right and wrong, what the media got right and wrong, etc.

He wrote that Ben didn’t submit the proper documentation for forming a club to begin with, and that’s why the club didn’t form… though he also admitted it was true that the Assistant Principal suggested he join a different club since an atheist group wouldn’t “be successful considering the school’s makeup.” But that wasn’t a denial of Ben’s atheist group, Smathers implied, just more of a helpful suggestion.

Why didn’t the school respond to the SSA’s letter? He wrote, “… there were no problems to address” since there was no denial of the club at play.

Smathers essentially says the same stuff about Kalei — that the school wasn’t trying to stop her at any point and they were more than willing to work with her, but she wasn’t following the protocol the school had in place for the formation of student groups.

Had the letter ended there, this may have been anticlimactic. A lot of misunderstandings all around, but no ill will from the district toward the students, and a green light to move forward with an atheist group if Kalei wanted one (and if she provided the necessary documentation required of all new clubs).

But it didn’t end there.

Smathers continued his letter for another two pages in which he listed a number of “concerns” he had about the whole situation, including the insinuation that the church/state advocacy groups were out “to seek publicity and notoriety.” (I guess that also suggests there was a chance at quiet reconciliation, but that the advocacy groups didn’t want that, a claim I find hard to believe.)

He also brought up the fact that Kalei’s father has a criminal past and that would be a problem for people in the community if this club were to form, adding that Mr. Wilson is likely responsible for this whole affair:

It is my opinion [that the ACLU/FFRF's] allegations… are without merit and baseless. In my opinion, the allegations arise from a manufactured controversy caused by [Mr. Wilson’s] influence on his children and a desire for publicity and potential financial gain. Further, that your respective organizations either unwittingly or willingly have participated in the same.

This is a ridiculously low blow. Basically, the lawyer — with the district behind him — is saying that he has no problem opening up a very old, and entirely irrelevant, can of worms about Kalei’s father in order to make this issue go away.

It worked. Even though Kalei received serious threats and nasty text messages, that’s not the only reason she decided she no longer wanted to form the group. She also wanted to protect her family, specifically her father, from being subject to vilification based on a decades-old matter.

Reporter Kimberly Winston alluded to this issue in her own article and included a statement from FFRF:

“It is unfortunate that Haywood County School officials and Attorney Smathers seem to have retaliated against students for bringing forth valid complaints about their ability to form a secular club at their school,” the statement reads. “We are troubled by the report, which contains many factual errors and focuses on matters that are irrelevant to forming a student club. Persons or organizations who may have been defamed and/or retaliated against by the school system might need to consider legal recourse.”

Kalei and Ben pursued this club on their own. Their father had nothing to do with it, and even if the club formed, he still would’ve had nothing to do with it. This just strikes me as a nasty, below-the-belt attack by the district in an effort to make this whole issue disappear. Even if that wasn’t the primary intention, that’s what it sounds like to those of us who have been in touch with Kalei’s family.

Honestly, if the district cared as much about their students as they seem to do about protecting their own reputation, this would never have become a media frenzy. All they had to do was reach out and help the students navigate through the club-forming process. It would have been that easy. Instead, the students were left with the impression that the school just didn’t want them to meet.

I hope it doesn’t end this way. If you’re a student at Pisgah who believes in what Ben and Kalei were doing, even if you’re Christian, please finish what they started and form the atheist club. Submit the paperwork the school requires and get the meetings going. I know there are Christians who support her already. Now’s your chance to make a difference.

On a side note, I spoke briefly with Smathers on Friday before I saw his letter, and we’ve spoken a couple of times since then. I asked him why he brought up anything about the father, but he told me he couldn’t speak about the matter beyond what he wrote in the report on account of (legitimate) privacy issues. I have no desire to inject myself any further into this case, but I hope local reporters follow up on this.

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.


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