We exist, get used to it

Dr. Jon Tuin is the principal at Larkin High School in Illinois has an interesting policy for allowing students to express themselves.

Allowing groups to set up tables in high school lunchrooms is one just one way Elgin School District U46 schools allow students to “express themselves,” according to Tuin.

“We don’t want to stifle their learning and their discovery,” he said.

I like it.

However, the true test of a high school policy-maker and the mettle always seems to come when atheists ask for equal treatment.  On Ask an Atheist Day a group of non-believers set up a table in the cafeteria, which caused upset parent Shavon Stanback to clutch her pearls in shock.

“They were here to talk about atheism,” said Shavon Stanback of Elgin. “That’s totally unacceptable to me.”

She continued: “I’m a Christian woman. I believe in God. I believe in heaven and hell.”

Contrary opinions?  Totally unacceptable!

Shavon Standack of Elgin told The Courier-News her son and niece, both Larkin students, were so upset by the booth, her husband signed them out of school for the rest of the day.

Man, if atheists could use the excuse of being upset by contrary opinions being voiced to leave school for the day, we’d never have to spend another day in class!  I may have used that excuse once upon a time, but I clearly place a higher value on a day’s worth of education than Mrs. Stanback and I also have skin that’s thicker than a planck length.

Seriously, this reaction is not abnormal to the idea of atheists merely existing and having opinions.  There are some atheists who will tell us that we should avoid projects like this for fear of offending religious people and turning them away from our message.  Those people need to realize that they are placating religious people, not respecting them.  People like Shavon are wrong to think their offense is sufficient cause to silence atheists and we shouldn’t treat them like they’re anything but wrong.

What these students were doing, answering questions about atheism, is about as innocuous as you can get, and if that generates discomfort in religious people then it is the religious people who need to buck up and realize they’re living in a world where not everybody agrees with them and learn to live with it.  People like Shavon Stanback and her brood need to get acclimated to the idea that atheists exist, we’re part of their society, we are done being quiet, and if they are offended by that then tough shit.  If we decide to wait until religious people are not offended by our presence, we’re going to be silent and in the closet for a very long time.

I’ve also seen how agonizing it can be for high school students to feel like they must stay closeted as an atheist as though it were something to be ashamed of.  If you think that’s a price we should pay so we can say that religious people weren’t offended by our presence then, with all due respect (which isn’t much in this case), fuck you with a telephone pole.

Usually the empty histrionics of upset religious parents is enough to get the administration to cave.  So how did Dr. Tuin react?

Tuin said he spoke to a few students who seemed upset by the table and assured them, “If I can allow you to do the same thing, I have to allow them.”

“We have clubs that set up tables all the time. We have a couple Christian groups. They get to set up a table.”

Interacting with principals in the midst of situations like this is my job, and I can tell you that more often than not I wind up going through a tremendous headache trying to convince them to make the morally and legally sound decision rather than taking the politically safer choice.  It’s refreshing to see an administrator who places equity above greasing the loudest wheel.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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