North Carolina High School Under Fire For Blocking Secular Club, Said It Wouldn't "Fit In"
In the North Carolina town of Canton, a high school has come under fire for apparently blocking student attempts to create a local chapter of the Secular Student Alliance. The issue first kicked off in Oct. 2013, when two teenagers, Kalei and Ben Wilson, say they met with assistant principal Connie Weeks of Pisgah High School to request approval for the student group. A month later, according to the teens, Weeks told them that the secular club wouldn't "fit in," and that there were no staff sponsors available.
Rather than drop their efforts, the two teenagers reached out to First Amendment watchdogs and secular groups. In Nov. 2013, Andrew Cheadle-Ford of the national Secular Students Alliance sent a letter to Principal Greg Bailey, asking the school to approve the group within 10 days.
But the high school didn't cave in. Now, the ACLU of North Carolina and FFRF have written a letter to Pisgah High School's Superintendent Anne Garrett, specifically referencing the Equal Access Act. Here's an excerpt:
Whatever the stated reasons for denying the request to form an SSA group at Pisgah High, this result is unacceptable. HCS [Haywood County Schools] has a legal responsibility to ensure that student groups wishing to form under the Equal Access Act may do so. If the faculty refuses to sponsor the group, the administration itself must act as a sponsor or must assign a faculty member to monitor the group.
At the end, the letter says:
We look forward to working with you to promptly ensure compliance with the Equal Access Act and a welcoming environment at Pisgah High School for all of its students.
Your move, Pisgah High School.
The school administrators apparently haven't responded to the letters, nor have they responded to requests for comment from multiple media outlets. In fact, the only information anyone has about the case is from the students' and the watchdog groups' accounts.
The town of Canton is predominantly Christian, and Pisgah High School's website shows that there is currently a student group called Fellowship of Christian Athletes. When Ben and Kalei Wilson met with the principals to get an SSA chapter approved, they had already gathered 11 other students who were interested in joining.
“I want a place where people who don’t have a religion can come and meet people with the same thoughts,” Kalei told the Religion News Service. “This is a way to tell the school that not everybody believes in the same thing.” Jessica Kirshner, an SSA development associate, told Religion News Service she received over 28 similar complaints from U.S. students in 2013.
This comes in the midst of a turbulent time, when religious groups are knocking heads with secular groups over ACA's contraception mandate, and the issue of teaching evolution instead of creationism in school still inspires debate.