Austin, TX - After a contentious six-month struggle narrowly avoiding a lawsuit, James Bowie High School has decided to allow senior Nick Montana to form his club. The group in question? A secular student alliance, which would provide a community for nonreligious teens.
Principal Stephen Kane had repeatedly refused to approve the group, but school attorneys ordered him to relent after Montana reached out to two national secular nonprofits, the Secular Student Alliance and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The organizations declared the school's change of course a victory for atheist equality.
"We're thrilled that Nick gets justice, but it shouldn't be controversial for atheists to want to form communities of their own," said Jesse Galef, spokesperson for the national Secular Student Alliance. "America's youth is becoming less and less religious, and we're ready for some friction as society comes to terms with that."
Struggles like Montana's are common occurrences across the country, according to the Secular Student Alliance. In a new effort to defend students' rights, it formed a partnership with the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its team of lawyers in June. FFRF is a state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., and is the nation’s largest association of agnostics and atheists.
Citing the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment, the partnership appealed to Kane to stop stonewalling Montana. The law requires schools with extracurricular clubs to treat all student groups equally, regardless of viewpoint. Once FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel weighed in for the partnership, it took four working days for school attorneys to order Kane to approve the group.
Montana's efforts took six months from the time he first asked to start the student group. School administrators had delayed approving the group, and later suspended it when it tried to meet unofficially. Federal law and school policy state that a group shall be approved once a student has a faculty sponsor and submits a constitution, which Montana did. Two other groups submitted requests and were approved while Montana's languished. The indefinite suspension of the group motivated Montana to contact the national SSA and FFRF.
"The principal had no right to suppress Nick's group. We shouldn't have to force school officials to stop discriminating against nonbelieving students," said Seidel. "But FFRF and the SSA will do what it takes to protect those students' rights."
Montana's controversy comes as America youths are becoming more secular and increasingly organizing around their secular identities. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that the percent of millennials 18-29 reporting doubts about the existence of God has doubled in five years, from 15% in 2007 to 31% in 2012. In the same time period, the SSA exploded with growth, from 81 campus groups to 357. They support 402 groups today, 52 of them at high schools.
The Secular Student Alliance (www.secularstudents.org) is a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit that organizes and empowers nonreligious students around the country. Their primary goal is to foster successful grassroots campus groups which provide a welcoming community for secular students to discuss their views and promote their secular values.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (www.ffrf.org) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity based in Madison, Wis., and, with 19,000 members is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics). It has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.