Want to know what the high school secular landscape looks like?

**UPDATE**

I have posted an update on this situation.  It can be read here.

**/UPDATE**


Do you read the bible, Ringo?  There’s this passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am The Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

I been saying that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass.

Last semester I sent at least a couple letters every week to schools making lives difficult for atheistic students, politely suggesting they stop breaking the law before I start raining hellfire on them.  I’m sending three this week…during the summer.  In the fall the rate will likely increase greatly from the spring.  When you donate to the SSA, these are the type of things you’re helping to fix.

All identifying information in this letter has been removed.  I know some of you will go nuts trying to get these people’s email addresses.  Rest assured that if they don’t fly straight, naming and shaming is next on my to-do list.


Mr. XXXXX,

My name is JT Eberhard and I am the High School Specialist with the Secular Student Alliance.

Three weeks ago our office received a letter with no return address.  The letter contained photocopied sections of the SSA’s educators brochure with typed responses to sections of it.  The gist of the letter was that our organization is an agent of Lucifer.  Those parts did not bother me as people are perfectly entitled to their personal opinions on these matters.  However, some of these parts were disconcerting in strictly legal/ethical terms and implicated your administration and your school’s educators in unlawful activity.  Those parts very much bothered me, though not nearly as much as they should bother you.

First, you should know why I’m emailing you, specifically, about a letter with no return address.  While the letter itself contained no return address, the sender included his email address as well as proof that he is a teacher at a high school.  The email address belongs to a man named XXXXX whose email is NAME12345@yahoo.com.  There are presently three XXXXXs teaching at high schools in the United States.  I’m sure you recognize 12345 as the zip code of [US CITY WHERE THE SCHOOL IS LOCATED].  Not only that, XYZ High School was the only school of the three to which the SSA had sent a group-starting packet in the last year and a half, which explains how Mr. XXXXX would’ve gotten a copy of our educators brochure.  It seems irrefutably clear that the letter was sent by the XXXXX who teaches at XYZ High School.

Now to the parts of his letter that should concern you.  Mr. XXXXX wrote…

When beliefs are far from what is considered the norm you should have the expectation that you will be judged.  Also, in any society the few are sometimes required to participate in the activities of the masses if they do not want to be ostracized.

The notion that ostracism is justified for a minority if they do not conform to the activities of the majority, coming from an educator, is in violation of so many Education Discrimination Laws that the list defies concise description, not the least of which is Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

You must be aware of this, because on page 2 of the XYZ student handbook the following paragraphs can be found (bold mine).

XYZ does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin, sex, or disability in providing education services, activities, and programs, including vocational programs, in accordance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended; Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972; and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended.

The next worrisome bit in Mr. XXXXX’s letter was in response to this paragraph in our brochure.

Teachers, school officials and administrators bear a legal and moral obligation to safeguard the well-being of nontheistic students.  All students are entitled to be treated with respect in a public school environment, regardless of their beliefs.

Mr. XXXXX’s response was as follows (bold mine).

Educational staff has the responsibility of preparing students to be responsible adults.  We expect all students to be treated with respect.  We are not, however, obligated to protect those who choose to be deviants in society.

According to [STATE LAW], educators in the state of [US STATE] are legally obligated to protect nontheistic students from both bullying and discrimination.  Even if Mr. XXXXX doesn’t believe he has a moral obligation to ensure the well-being of all of his students, the law binds him to do so in his capacity as an educator.  Aside from that, branding students as deviants for not holding a religion and expressing that those students do not deserve his protection as an educator/government employee is as wildly inappropriate as it is illegal.

Moving on.  Later in his letter, Mr. XXXXX cites this portion of our brochure.

Staff and administrators should also create a welcoming environment for nontheistic students.

In response, Mr. XXXXX wrote…

A welcoming environment is what we should not create.  Satan should not be comfortable in God’s world.  You say they should develop their own world view when you really want them to  adopt your world view.  The book they need to read for information is the Bible.  Nontheism should not be spoken of in a tone of acceptance.

Again, endorsing a state of inequality/discrimination in a public school is a violation of a litany of laws both federal and state.

However, the most troublesome part of Mr. XXXXX’s letter read…

Obviously, I would not want to help students down the wrong path.  A group tried to form at our school.  It was from one of those students that I received this brochure.  Not surprisingly, they could not get a teacher to sponsor the club.  As educators we are dedicated to conveying the truth to students.  If the students are proud of believing there is no God they should not feel like they have to hide it.  They should not feel the need for a safe haven.

It is obvious that it is not a lack of pride on the part of minorities that necessitates school clubs and other means of protection, but rather the discriminatory behavior they face at the hands of other students and, as Mr. XXXXX has so eagerly established, at the hands of their teachers.

Mr. XXXXX has also asserted that the students attempting to form a secular club at XYZ were prohibited from doing so due to the faculty denying them sponsorship.  However, this is illegal.  It violates the Equal Access Act to allow a monitor requirement to serve as a bar to a club’s formation or to impose restrictions on one group that are not imposed on other groups.  In Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990), the United States Supreme Court ruled that a high school violated the Equal Access Act when it denied a student permission to form a Christian club.  The Court was guided by its observation that the purpose of the Act is to forbid schools to “deny access to school facilities to any unfavored student club on the basis of its speech content.”  Id. at 245.  Furthermore, the Court advised, the Act is to be given a “broad reading,” id. at 239, because a narrow reading would result either in almost no schools being subject to the Act, or it would permit schools to strategically evade the Act.  Id. at 244.  The Court held that the club must be allowed by the school, even though the student’s proposal called for the club to “have the same privileges and meet on the same terms and conditions as other … student groups, except that the proposed club would not have a faculty sponsor” as required by school regulations.  Id. at 232.  The Court pointed out that, at most, “the Act permits the assignment of a teacher, administrator, or other school employee to a meeting for custodial purposes.”  Id.at 253.
A similar conclusion was reached in Pope v. East Brunswick Board of Education, 12 F.3d 1244 (3d Cir. 1993).  There, the court considered whether the Equal Access Act is limited in application to schools that allow student-initiated clubs or extends to schools that allow only faculty-initiated clubs.  The court adopted the broader interpretation, reasoning that a narrow interpretation of the Act would allow schools to limit clubs to those with mainstream interests for which faculty sponsors could be easily found, while excluding clubs that espouse objectionable views on the ground that no sponsor could be found.  Id. at 1250-51.

Consistent with a broad reading of the statute, the courts have held that schools must waive generally applicable requirements that have the effect of denying, rather than fostering, “equal access.”  Thus, in Hsu v. Roslyn Union Free School District No. 3, 85 F.3d 839 (2d Cir. 1996), the court held that the Equal Access Act requires a school to excuse a Bible Club from complying with a school policy prohibiting student groups from discriminating on the basis of religion in electing officers.  The court reasoned as follows:

The Act mandates that students be given “equal access,” not that the School’s internal rules be administered uniformly.  A rule against wearing hats in the school building, perfectly and consistently enforced, might deprive Jewish students of equal access to after-school facilities for shared religious observance.  Similarly, a rule requiring students to wear appropriate footwear at all times, perfectly and consistently enforced, might effectively ban after-school meetings of the Yoga Club.  The neutral application of the School’s rules allows the School to say that it is treating all clubs equally.  But exemptions from neutrally applicable rules that impede one or another club from expressing the beliefs that it was formed to express, may be required if a school is to provide “equal access.”

Id. at 860.

Pursuant to the case law, the Equal Access Act obligates the administration of any high school in which an open forum has been created (like at XYZ) and receiving public funding to facilitate the formation of an secular in one of the following ways:  (1) the school may waive the requirement of a faculty monitor; (2) it may assign a school employee to serve as a non-participatory monitor for the group; or (3) if no such employee can be found, and the school is unwilling to waive the faculty monitor requirement, the school must furnish a monitor by, for example, assigning non-objecting school employees to attend the club’s meetings on a rotating basis.  Furthermore, upon formation, the club must be given the same access to facilities that are provided to other groups, and must not be subjected to more demanding rules and limitations than those that are imposed on other student groups.

Your teacher, Mr. XXXXX, has taken it upon himself to send me documented proof that your school, with the help of several of its faculty, defied the law.  In the process of implicating his colleagues, Mr. XXXXX boasted of discriminating against his nontheistic students and made no effort to even conceal the religious motivations for doing so.  He even confirms this on his letter’s final page.

The group that tried to get started here could not find a sponsor because as educators we want to lead students in a positive direction; not lead them to hell.

For an agent of the government, this behavior is egregious.  The fact that Mr. XXXXX has expressed a willingness to create an atmosphere of inequality in a public school is compounded by the fact that Mr. XXXXX apparently doesn’t understand even the basic legal obligations of a government/school employee.  This makes him a very serious liability not only to XYZ High School, but also to the administration that hired him and which is charged with maintaining legal compliance (not to mention compliance with XYZ’s nondiscrimination policy).

So, to sum up our situation; your teacher sent us a letter detailing the ways in which XYZ broke the law.  His letter was dripping with pride as he handed us an open and shut case of religious discrimination, while presumably under the impression that not including his school email or a return address would keep us from finding him.  This man represents your school, which is something that should give you pause as its principal, particularly if this issue becomes any bigger than it is at present.  The Secular Student Alliance works to ensure that the rights of all students are protected.  Since I can only assume we share this goal, Mr. #####, we need to talk about what is going to be done here.

I will give you until Monday morning a 9am EDT to consult your legal counsel and to respond to this email with how you plan to rectify this situation.  Your legal counsel will undoubtedly ask you if the students who attempted to start the club will still be students at XYZ in the fall.  I have taken the liberty of answering that question before contacting you: yes, they will be.  You will also need to let me know a time on Tuesday that the SSA’s Regional Organizer in [US STATE], [SSA ORGANIZER], can come to your office and talk to you about Mr. XXXXX’s letter.

As I said earlier, the Secular Student Alliance empowers students and works to ensure their rights are protected.  In the event that those rights are violated, we step in to ensure the students get the support and opportunities they’re entitled to under the law.  The violation is often a misunderstanding which can be set right with a letter or phone call explaining the relevant case law and the students’ needs.  If necessary, however, we connect the students with legal representation and bring the matter to court.

Secular students are often mistreated and misunderstood, and we take defending them very seriously.  Whether it’s a friendly letter, a media campaign, or legal action, we intend to see that they’re treated well.  Thank you for your understanding and cooperation in seeing that all your students get treated fairly.
JT Eberhard
Campus Organizer and High School Specialist
Secular Student Alliance
office: [phone number]
cell: [phone number]
[email address]


AND YOU WILL KNOW I AM THE LORD!

I really wanted to end it with, “do you read the bible, Ringo?”

TL;DR:

Seriously though, this is what the high school landscape looks like.  I only know about this occasion because the teacher somehow thought it’d be brilliant to send the SSA documentation of all the ways he was breaking the law.  How many more are out there we don’t know about?

When high school students try to start a secular club, more often than not they experience interference from their administration.  This is how hard we must fight for mere equality.  This is the amount of effort that must frequently be put in just to ensure that people do what they should.

Wanna fix it?  Donate what you can to the SSA.

Thanks for reading.

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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