Battle Brewing at High School Over Student Rights
By Mel Fabrikant Wednesday, February 12, 2014, 11:14 AM EST
Waynesville, NC – At Pisgah High School, a battle is brewing over the legal right of students to create communities for their nonreligious peers. Four months ago, an eager student attempted to form a club for secular students, only to find their efforts thwarted by a recalcitrant administration.
After first meeting with Assistant Principal Connie Weeks, the student was told that Weeks needed to “look into” the formation of the group.
At subsequent meetings, the student was told by Weeks that they should just join a different club, because the secular club didn’t “fit in” to the community at Pisgah High School, and there were no faculty sponsors available—despite the Equal Access Act stating that if a sponsor couldn’t be found, the administration is required to assign one. Pisgah High School has more than thirty student groups, many “non-curricular”, so this student didn’t think there would be any issue getting approval for a secular group on campus.
Knowing their rights were being violated, the student reached out to the Secular Student Alliance, a national non-profit organization that empowers high school and college students to build communities for nonreligious students. The SSA attempted to reach out to the school with the letter below written by High School Specialist Andrew Cheadle-Ford. However, the administrations ignored the letter.
“We always attempt to resolve situations like this by amicably informing the administrators of the rights of their secular students,” said August E. Brunsman IV, Executive Director of the SSA. “However, in this case, the administrators were entirely unresponsive. We have reached out to our partners at the Freedom From Religion Foundation to get the aid of their legal team in making sure secular students at Pisgah High School don’t face unequal treatment and discrimination.”
The student’s cause has been taken up by both the FFRF and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. These groups have reached out with the letter below to the superintendent of Haywood County Schools, the district where Pisgah High School is located, after months of non-response from the administration. The FFRF and ACLU of North Carolina are still awaiting a response.
“As both a parent and secular activist, I am inspired by the tenacity of these teenagers who didn't cower in their corners but instead contacted their friends and advocates at the SSA,” said Cash Wilson, the father of the student in question. “A secular club is a welcome addition to any school, but especially a school here in the zealous mountains of North Carolina. It will help secular students will no longer feel alone and ostracized. My full respect and admiration to the student activists, the fine folks at SSA, the FFRF legal team, and the North Carolina ACLU.”
This controversy at Pisgah High School comes at a time when more and more young Americans are identifying as secular. According to a recent PRRI survey, while only 11% of those over 65 are religiously unaffiliated, more than 30% of those 18-29 are religiously unaffiliated. The Secular Student Alliance has over 375 affiliate groups on high school and college campuses.