Equal Access Except For Atheists?: Schools Must Not Discriminate Against Non-Religious Students

Back in 1984, Religious Right groups lobbied Congress in full force to pass a bill ensuring that Christian student clubs and organizations would be free to meet on public school campuses.

They succeeded in making the Equal Access Act the law of the land. The act states that under most circumstances, public schools must allow a wide range of student-run clubs to meet during “non-instructional” time. This opened the door for public schools to allow student religious clubs, including Bible study groups, to meet freely.

But the act also made it clear that nonreligious clubs receive the same protections. In the early 1980s, AU’s Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, then working for the American Civil Liberties Union, knew there was little he could do to stop the Equal Access Act from passing. He worked to ensure that the measure at least included provisions to give nonreligious clubs full protections, too.

Today, therefore, all kinds of student clubs, religious and not, should be enjoying the freedom to assemble on public school campuses fairly and equally. But according to an article in USA Today, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The newspaper highlights the discrimination many atheist student clubs face, not just from other students, but from public school officials, too.

A national organization called the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), which promotes atheism and humanism and has chapters a more than 200 colleges, is trying to start clubs at high schools around the country. They have faced hostility and, in many cases, have been unable to form clubs.

J.T. Eberhard of the Columbus, Ohio-based SSA has been tasked with focusing on high school outreach. His goal is to launch 50 clubs around the country.

So far, according to the news report, Eberhard has succeeded in creating five new clubs, but “three had a struggle and six more are still stymied.” Of the 17 clubs already operating, two have to meet secretly.

“High school is hard for anybody and we are among the most reviled groups in America,” Eberhard said. “These clubs give kids a chance to socialize with like-minded people. There's nothing in our mission statement about tearing down religion.”

Schools that deny atheist students equal access often claim that the groups are “hateful.” At a public school in Oklahoma, a faculty member who volunteered to serve as the requisite adviser was told by the administration that it would be a “bad career move,” leading the teacher to resign from the advisory role. Without an adviser, the club could not continue.

Lynn calls this type of intimidation from public school officials “an illegal end-run around the constitutional rights of non-religious students.” It’s exactly why he says he wishes the Equal Access Act was never written.

Still, it’s not all bad. Some schools want to treat all students equally, as the act requires, and have allowed for atheist and gay rights clubs to form freely. As my colleague Rob Boston wrote in a blog in 2009, many of these groups are not what some fundamentalist Christians had in mind when they pushed for the measure, but fair is fair.

School officials that refuse to allow atheist groups on campus need to shape up and stop this discrimination. Not only are they showing they care little about the rights of their students, they are also in violation of this act and the Constitution.

P.S.:  Good news!  A Virginia Senate subcommittee voted 4-3 to kill two proposed constitutional amendments that would have opened the door to official prayer in public schools and state-paid chaplaincy training. Though a full committee could still take it up, it’s highly unlikely.