The fight to create a secular club by Thomas Sheedy

Thomas Sheedy’s speech, edited for space, was delivered on Oct. 10, 2015, at FFRF’s 38th annual convention in Madison, Wis. He was introduced by FFRF Legal Fellow Maddy Ziegler:

I’m here to introduce student activist Thomas Sheedy. He is 17 years old and a senior at the Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, New York. He’s the very recent founder of the school’s Secular Student Alliance, the vice president of the Gay Straight Alliance and the event organizer for the Long Island Atheists.

Thomas reached out to FFRF this summer asking for help to start his Secular Student Alliance after being given the run-around by his school for over a year. I wrote to the school district telling them that denying the club’s formation was against the law. I worked with its attorney to ensure the club was finally approved. All the while, Thomas was very diligent about phoning me for updates and making sure that I was on top of things. It was that diligence that led to his ultimately winning the almost two-year battle to found the Ward Melville High School Secular Student Alliance.

So it is my pleasure, on behalf of generous FFRF members Richard and Beverly Hermsen, to announce Thomas Sheedy as the winner of a student activist award of $5,000.

By Thomas Sheedy

While I am excited to be around famous heroes such as Dan Barker and Taslima Nasrin, I wish we could live in a country where the fight for secularity on the domestic front was nonexistent. Because in my vision of America, there would be fair treatment of all, regardless of belief, and we would quote the sensible statement by President Kennedy where he said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

When I decided to abandon my Roman Catholic faith in the spring of 2013, I began to research and observe the array of viewpoints in the secular movement and just what we are fighting against.

What I saw was appalling. I witnessed a rejection of reason in our political system because politicians want to win votes instead of revealing facts. I saw a promotion of ignorance cultivated by a history of childhood indoctrination and deliberate brain-washing where kids look to fairy tales for answers. Most of all I witnessed the scorning of sons and daughters and the separation of loved ones, because those sons and daughters did not believe in God.

This appalling shock happened to a 15-year-old kid in a suburban town on Long Island. As a young atheist, I had a thirst to be with like minds, to communicate with those who respected my viewpoints and to work with those who wanted to educate others on the pleasure of sanity.

So what did I do that was so special? I decided to start a Secular Student Alliance at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, New York.

During the summer preceding my first day of high school, I educated myself on the emergence of nonbelief. On my first day of high school, I was eager to make friends with those who had a similar disclosure on religion. By my sophomore year, I wanted to start an after-school club for atheists and agnostics. At that time, I did not know of anyone who might be interested in joining. I held on to my hopes because I knew that the facts outweighed my lack of patience — a third of millennials consider themselves to be nonreligious.

Then I came across a struggle that caught my eye: A junior named John Raney wanted to start a Christian club called Students United in Faith. Like any students who want to start a new club, Raney sent in an application to the vice principal. After his application was ignored for two months, his mother contacted the school district and found that his club was denied because it was apparently religious in nature.

Once he heard the bad news, he contacted a group called the Liberty Institute, which is basically the Christian version of FFRF. The Liberty Institute sent a letter to the district administration demanding that the club be allowed. Raney also got in touch with the media and received extensive news coverage. The administration did not understand that under the Equal Access Act, Raney could have his club.

John Raney and the Liberty Institute knew of the school’s lack of knowledge on that issue, and took the Christian persecution battle to my school’s doorstep. Christians will not find a speck of dust on our nation’s soil where they are persecuted as a group. They face no opposition to their rights in the South. On the coasts, they are only met with officials who did not know that there were laws made in the latter half of the 20th century, thus creating loopholes against Jefferson’s wall of separation.

As a result of Raney’s threats, he got his club. However, in the aftermath of his victory, I saw his club doing more harm than good. When I went to one of his meetings, I was met with evangelical rhetoric and a feeling of discomfort.

A club for secularists

In 2014, a teacher named Ira Sterne, who was the adviser to our school’s model Congress, explained that if the Christians can have their club, students who conduct their lives in a secular manner can have their club. I told Mr. Sterne about my idea from September and we got to work. We envisioned a forum where students could talk about religion in an open setting without any backlash or bigotry.

In June, I took this idea to the vice principal’s secretary and, the day after we filled out the application sheet, we lost it. The school then decided not to hand out new applications. Why? They said it was because the school year is ending. These excuses from faculty and school officials did not end there, unfortunately.

At the start of my junior year, I faced a rude awakening. Before the first period bell even rang on the first day of school, Mr. Sterne came up to me and said that he was transferred to another building in the district. That meant I had to find another faculty member to be the adviser for the club, so I made one of the same mistakes I did in June — I gave in. I succumbed to the forces working behind my back and behind the backs of my supporters.

About a week later, Raney told me that Students United in Faith was denied for a second time, but it’s not what you think. The school administration, as well as a few members of the School Board, agreed with Raney’s views. However, to not seem controversial in front of a few suspected skeptics, the district told Raney that he did not have the required 20 student signatures for the club to be official. But he knew that the Equal Access Act of 1984 did not respect local club minimums, so he contacted the Liberty Institute, and they began to plot again.

On Oct. 3, 2014, I overheard Raney telling a student that he had to leave the meeting early for an interview with Fox News. I politely jumped into the conversation and asked if his statement was true. He flat out denied it. Three days later I received links to an article saying, “School bans Christian club again” by Todd Starnes. Raney got the attention that he wanted and, even though the laws are in his favor, he wanted to push his agenda. He got his club approved again by means of force. There was barely any proper education to the local populace on the situation. The schools, which were mainly on Raney’s side, were blinded again and fooled once more, first by their lack of knowledge and then by their unwillingness to take action.

A day after Fox published the article, Raney came up to me and said, “Yeah, I lied, I did have an interview with Fox News.”

Ladies and gentlemen, why would John Raney, the conservative Christian, lie to Thomas Sheedy, the liberal firebrand atheist? Well, because he is afraid that I will stop his agenda. He would get his club, but he would not get as much media recognition and would not be able to move his agenda further to the right. By November 2014, Raney’s agenda has influenced much of the religious freedom debate across the religious and political communities on Long Island.

Adviser search continues

After September 2014, I made it my top priority to find a suitable teacher to be our adviser for my club. From October to March, I asked many teachers from various departments, and they all turned me down. At this point, I wanted to see if the school would be willing to help me out. I submitted a club application and I got called down to the vice principal’s office in March, where I was told that the district sent out an email to all teachers and faculty in the district asking for volunteers. No one volunteered.

When it was announced in the spring of my junior year that new applications for the next school year were being distributed, I quickly filled one out and found an adviser who had some spare time and submitted the application. Fifty-one students said that they were interested. We had a teacher who was willing to be our adviser and we labeled our goals.

We wanted to create a safe haven for nonreligious students. We wanted to get kids involved with the secular movement. We wanted an open forum for enlightening discussion. We wanted to protect the separation of church and state. We wanted to become an engaging partner in the Three Village community through charitable work and public service.

Club rejected

When I submitted that application I had no doubt that the school would not give me any problems since we met their guidelines. On July 12, 2015, I was notified that the Ward Melville Secular Student Alliance was not included on the new list of clubs for the school year.

Remember how I said that the school’s administration was more in line with Raney’s ideas? There were kids at Ward Melville who were struggling with coming out as atheists to their parents. There were students and teachers who were sick of the religious right’s agenda to turn Long Island into a battleground, and there were students who wanted an excuse to be anywhere but home so they could be with those who cared about their well being.

What I saw as a beginner in the movement was now coming back to me and I did not want to let these people down, but I could not do it alone. I contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation and I explained my situation. Soon enough, FFRF sent a letter to the Three Village Central School District demanding that training on the Equal Access Act is encouraged and that this mess — these games that were started by Raney and the school board — had gone on long enough. The law firm representing the district stated that the issue would be discussed at the legal emergency meeting on Aug. 11.

A few days after the meeting, FFRF received a reply stating that while the club was never denied, the superintendent was in favor of recommending approval of the club. On Sept. 8 I was notified that the Ward Melville Student Secular Alliance had finally been approved.
The following day, I threw out my original speech and I thanked the superintendent for making the right decision for approving the club, not only because the law required her to do so, but because it was the right thing to do.

As of two days ago, we have had three official meetings and we intend to make our group not just a club, but an institution as well. After working hard for over a year and a half, after seeing local Long Islanders taken advantage of, was it all worth it?
I think so. I managed to get through the hardships and problems in the struggle, but this fight is not over yet.

We have to protect secularism in every state. What’s happened in Rhode Island and Long Island is just the beginning. Every state in the country is under threat from the losing majority, even in places that are quiet and Catholic. Thank you.

Listen to an interview of Thomas Sheedy on FFRF’s Freethought Radio, (Jan. 2, 2016, podcast).

Freedom From Religion Foundation