Even in conservative parts of the Bible Belt, atheist teenagers are starting to organize clubs of their own. The Secular Student Alliance, a national nonprofit devoted to supporting nonreligious students, announced early success in its expanded efforts to foster groups for secular high school students. In the past month alone, five new high school groups have affiliated with the SSA, after it took four years for the first twelve to join.
The Secular Student Alliance already offers services to over 200 college affiliates, but says that high school atheists often face unique challenges including stronger pushback from parents and school officials. To confront these challenges, the organization hired JT Eberhard, former student activist and creator of the acclaimed Skepticon conference, as a Campus Organizer and High School Specialist.
“Every teenager deserves a safe space to meet with like minded peers, but hostile administrations and prejudiced communities are stonewalling them from having it,” said Eberhard. “We’re gearing up to give the students the backing they need. Our goal is to see 50 groups for secular high school students by the end of 2011.”
Educating students and teachers about the legal issues involved will be a key part of the effort. Students in conservative areas have difficulty finding a willing faculty advisor, who often report fearing career repercussions. But according to Supreme Court rulings on the Equal Access Act, schools cannot use the lack of a faculty advisor as a reason to bar the group from forming. The Secular Student Alliance is prepared to help mediate those situations and protect the students’ rights.
"While the law is certainly on our side, we would rather have social understanding than legal victory," remarked August Brunsman, the SSA's Executive Director. "We want to demonstrate to our fellow Americans that people who don't believe in a god are nothing to be afraid of."
Secular groups are encouraged to focus on activism, building community, education, service projects, and cooperation with other groups. The SSA provides such student groups with resources like group-running guides, activity packets, project grants, and a go-to staff member to answer questions.
The development of these new resources and the creation of Eberhard’s position were sparked by a grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, whose mission is to gain respect for freethinkers and ensure the complete separation of church and state.
As someone who started a college group, I can't stress how rewarding it was. Having hundreds of people thanking me for providing a voice of reason in the community and reminding people that they weren't alone meant so much to me. Your impact will have lasting effects!
And as someone who attempted to help a friend organize a Gay Straight Alliance in high school but failed thanks to bigoted push back from administrators... I wish I would have had an organization like the SSA to help me out.
If you're interested in starting a group, make sure to email JT Eberhard (JT@secularstudents.org). You don't have to be 100% sure yet - JT is an awesome guy, and he'll provide you with info about what starting a group would entail.