What Would JT Do If He Were Following The Law: An Interview About Students' and Teachers' Rights

What Would JT Do If He Were Following The Law: An Interview About Students' and Teachers' Rights June 15, 2012

JT Eberhard blogs at the breakout hit blog What Would JT Do? on our own Freethought Blogs network. JT Eberhard’s day job is to help high school students set up their Secular Student Alliance chapters. A big part of his job is to deal with obstinate administrations who try to prohibit them for illegal reasons. In order to do this he needs to know the law on students’ religious rights, and secular students’ rights in particular, backwards and forwards. I decided since this is a blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance, I would pick his brain for your edification about what your rights are as a teacher or a student who wants to bring your atheism into the school. I was quite surprised by a lot of what I learned.

Please donate to the Secular Student Alliance. Help us pay to have a JT Eberhard on the front lines to make sure students’ rights are allowed to be exercised. And see more links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

Daniel Fincke: JT, I’m an atheist teacher in a literature teacher in a high school. I want there to be a Secular Student Alliance at my school. Can I approach a student I think is atheist based on remarks she has made and see if she wants to start it?

JT Eberhard: You’re an atheist teacher in a literature teacher? Congrats to both of you! Use a condom. Maybe leave the high school too. Janitor’s closets are tiny.

You cannot approach the students in your capacity as a teacher. Legally, they must approach you. Yes, religious teachers do it. They’re breaking the law.

Now, once you’re off campus and not in your capacity as a teacher, say if you bump into said students at the park, you can talk about whatever you wish (as far as atheism goes).

You can also work to make your class as safe a place for nonbelievers as possible so they feel comfortable when they need to talk to someone. In an environment like high school that places a premium on being accepted socially, having someone who understands what it’s like to be an atheist in a Christian nation can be invaluable to them. It is highly likely that someone will seek you out once they know you’re friendly.

Daniel Fincke: Are there any restrictions on what you can unsolicitedly say about whether or not you’re an atheist in class?

JT Eberhard: There’s a lot of grey area there. Were I advising a teacher I’d say to keep mum on the issue.

But you can say things like “anti-atheist comments will not be tolerated in my classroom.”

Daniel Fincke: If a literature assignment deals with questions of God’s existence, say by dealing with the problem of evil or morality, and students want to debate the topic, what are the limits there? And can a teacher deliberately decide to have a discussion about the topic since it is germane to the literary work?

JT Eberhard: Yes. That is perfectly legal.

What the teacher cannot do is tell students that one particular position is correct. You wouldn’t want a Christian teacher using that excuse to bring up the argument and then telling everybody that Christianity is the only source of morality. Ditto, an atheistic teacher couldn’t say that all morality is derived from our desires.

What they can do is provide counter arguments and say “philosopher Richard Carrier says…”

This is all assuming you’re no longer in the literature teacher and they can actually run their class. You dirty, dirty man.

Daniel Fincke: I’m an atheist high school student, hyped up on Freethought Blogs, and in the lunch room someone is talking about his faith and I ask myself “What Would JT Do?” And I decide to pick apart their reasons for believing. They engage for a bit, see they’re losing the argument and then complain to a teacher that I am harassing them over their religion. Am I going to get in trouble?

JT Eberhard: Possibly. However, you cannot get into trouble fairly. If you do get punished for taking part in such a discussion and you get in trouble, email me. If you get punished and the believer doesn’t, email me and I will rain hell down on that administration.

Also, you should start reading Camels with Hammers and Richard Carrier’s Blog to refine your arguments. Also, your teachers are pervs. Stay out of the janitor’s closet.

Is this going up in real time anywhere? I will totally send my minions, few though they may be

Daniel Fincke: No, I’ll edit it to protect the guilty
don’t worry.

JT Eberhard: Oh, I don’t need protection. I hope you’re keeping all the jokes in.

Daniel Fincke: If you really want, I will so do it.

JT Eberhard: ABsolutely! I don’t want to sound like a dry old academic! Not my style.

Daniel Fincke: I’ll ignore the subtle implication that it’s mine.

I am the football coach and I am ALSO the Christian club coach. Four of my players are in the Christian club. Before and after practice I pray with just these students. Okay or not okay?

JT Eberhard: Not ok. In your capacity as the head of the Christian club you can only be there in a custodial sense. You can help plan events, you can help move the discussion, but you cannot take a stance. This is in accordance with the Equal Access Act.

Likewise, even if you know the students are Christians you cannot, in your capacity as an employee of the state, engage in sectarian prayer with those students.

Do coaches break this law all the time? Yes. Is it against the law? Yes.

Daniel Fincke: So if you are supervising the Secular Student Alliance, mum is still the word on where you stand on the whole God thing?

JT Eberhard: Actually, yes. That is the law. And it makes sense. Employees of the state must stay neutral. They can know you’re an atheist or Christian, but the rules are actually very similar to what you can do as a teacher.

Daniel Fincke: If I am a high school atheist can I print out multiple copies of my favorite religion bashing article from What Would JT Do and pass them out indiscriminately to people in the halls or in the study hall or the lunch room or to my friend before class starts at our desks?

JT Eberhard: It depends on what your schools rules are regarding handing out fliers.

Daniel Fincke: Okay. Applies to all equally?

JT Eberhard: Yes. It must or else you’re administrator is being a bad, bad law-breaker.

Daniel Fincke: What are some rights that I do have as a student when it comes to expressing my atheism that many administrations, and even students, don’t understand (or want to understand)?

JT Eberhard: The biggest one is that potential controversy is an inadequate reason to silence anybody. It doesn’t matter if the community may not like atheists being out and having a club, they must be allowed to form and given equal access.

Another is that the requirement for a student club to find a willing faculty sponsor is actually illegal. The courts have ruled that equal access does not mean equal enforcement of rules. For instance, a rule against wearing hats, equally enforced across the board, would prohibit the formation of a Jewish club. Or a rule stating shoes must be worn at all times, unilaterally enforced, would prohibit the formation of a yoga club. Likewise, insisting that all clubs find a willing faculty sponsor prejudices groups with mainstream views. If a willing faculty sponsor cannot be found, a faculty member must be assigned as a custodian for the group.

For details on this, one can see my recent post about my work where I get after a particular administrator on that front.

“Those in a position of authority at the school are bound by the Equal Access Act to help students to form this club, so long as there is an open forum (which you have created with excellent clubs such as FCA, FBLA, etc.). Even if there were no willing faculty sponsor at the school, the school is still obligated to appoint a facilitator to the group. 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.”

Daniel Fincke: Wow. That’s fascinating.

JT Eberhard: That’s why you got me for this interview, right?

Daniel Fincke: Right. So JT how did you already fit in and abandon an opera singing career at your age. I never understand that.

JT Eberhard: Singing minor roles isn’t really a career, but I did get paid.

I went back to school to get my degree in music and fell in love with activism. I didn’t even know secular activism was a thing, so we just kind of made it up as we went. This meant we never followed the standard prescription for what college groups do and we wound up doing a lot of new stuff.


The two things that got the most attention were, of course, Skepticon. But we also built a pirate fort out of postage boxes to oppose preachers on our campus.

We did tons of other stuff. It’d take me forever to get into all of it.


The short of it though, is that I realized activism was a perfect synthesis of my passion for social change and my inability to resist fucking with people.

Daniel Fincke: Can I tell you my reason for hating classical singing?

JT Eberhard: It’s emotionaless and bland?

Daniel Fincke: Hmmm. That might be the way to interpret this but I am not sure. What I was going to say was that it turns the voice into an indifferent instrument and the human is lost for me. Listening to singing, I have figured must be a pretty social thing to me. I want to connect with a person.

JT Eberhard: I have the exact same issues. *high five*

Daniel Fincke: Really??
Oh wow. That feels so good to get that off my chest and not be judged.

JT Eberhard: Absolutely. I hate opera. I love it as a theorist, I hate it as a singer. The opera singers that don’t let it turn them into a park and bark machine are phenomenal though.

Daniel Fincke: A park and bark machine??

JT Eberhard: Someone who stands in place and sings without any passion or connection to the story behind the music.

In opera we call it parking and barking.

Daniel Fincke: I see. I have not stopped interviewing or putting together blog posts since 5am, JT.
Just a constant barrage of e-mails to answer and posts to tinker with to get just right. You see how much I am willing to suffer for the students?

JT Eberhard: I appreciate it. If you need to cut ours short to get some rest, I understand. I went 24 hours and was about ready to die.

Daniel Fincke: I may preprogram some overnight stuff and go to bed. If you write it DURING the blogathon it counts in my book. Actually, I can’t, people overseas might show up after all. Anyway, forgive me for cutting short before the three hours is up but I’m getting woozy. Should I leave in the jokes about being in the literature teacher?

JT Eberhard: Yes!! *hug*

Daniel Fincke: Okay. *hug* Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

JT Eberhard: 🙂

Daniel Fincke: I love you JT. And I’m not just saying that because I’m delirious.

JT Eberhard: Love you back. Not just saying that because I want in your pants. Seriously though, thanks for doing this. You rock. Get some rest.

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