School system threatened with legal actionPisgah students crusade for non religious club
Haywood County School officials received a rude awakening on Wednesday after learning that two organizations have teamed up and may take legal action against the school system.
A letter was sent out to school officials threatening a lawsuit after students at Pisgah High School were denied a request to form a secular student alliance club.
Four months ago, Ben Wilson, who now attends Haywood Community College, approached administratiors at Pisgah about forming a group for non-religious students. According to Wilson's father, Cash, Assistant Principal Connie Weeks asked for time to research the group first. She later told him the group was not needed because there were other clubs and that it would "cause problems." Weeks also cited the lack of a faculty sponsor as another reason not to form the group, he said.
Now PHS freshman Kalei Wilson has taken up the torch, and reached out for help from the Secular Student Association (SSA), an educational nonprofit group that promotes the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics in student communities.
Kalei, of Clyde, also has been seeking a faculty sponsor for the club — something that has proven difficult.
"I almost did find one," Kalei said. "They said they would need talk to the principal first. When I got back in touch with them, they had an excuse and said they didn't have time."
In addition, Kalei said another teacher refused to be a sponsor because he or she was worried the club would single out the participating students as targets for bullying. Even so, Kalei is still persevering so she and her like-minded friends can "do good without God."
When the SSA reached out to Pisgah Principal Greg Bailey last November, there was no response. This prompted them to join forces with the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — two organizations that promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church.
Superintendent Anne Garrett received a letter from the FFRF and ACLU on Wednesday threatening legal action. The letter claims that denying the request to form a secular student group was "a violation of federal law." Before receiving the letter, Garrett said she was unaware of the issue.
The letter cites the Equal Access Act, which requires equal treatment of student groups. According to the act, denying access to a student group because there are no faculty monitors is impermissible, and is essentially a "back door veto" to forming the group.
"Pisgah High effectively bans unpopular speech simply because the viewpoint expressed may be unpopular with the faculty," wrote Christopher Brooks, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina.
The letter suggests appointing a Pisgah staff member or administrator to supervise the group.
Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte said he did not believe the school was obligated to form a club without a voluntary sponsor and was unaware of the issue before Wednesday. Nolte said he thought the Equal Access Act had its limitations, but declined to comment further since litigation is a possibility.
Jessica Kirsner, a development associate with the SSA, said the school board would have to respond to the letter to avoid a lawsuit.
"If they don't get in contact with them, the Freedom From Religion Foundation will take it one step further and take legal action," Kirsner said. "That's never happened before — not with a secular student alliance. The administration usually can work things out, but sometimes we do have to push a little bit farther."
Students want secular club
Despite the struggle, Kalei concedes that Pisgah is still in need of a secular alliance. She said as many as 11 of her non-religious friends have said they would join the club if it was formed.
"There are people who don't believe in God who get it thrown in their face a lot," Kalei said. "People don't realize they do that when they put up posters and talk about it all the time. We just want to have a place where people can go who are like-minded so we can do things like help with the community. It will help people to realize we're not bad people."
Cash Wilson said it was important to have a secular alliance formed at the school because it would serve as a type of religious "watch dog" at a school that is predominantly Christian. He described the resistance against the club as an example of teachers endorsing their own religion.
"It shows the religious zealotry and often bigotry and ownership," Cash Wilson said. "I'm not attacking Christianity, I'm attacking the separation."
After receiving the threatening letter, Garrett said she hoped to resolve the matter immediately, with help from the school's attorney, Pat Smathers.
"I'm sure he will give us good, sound advice," Garrett said, noting she wished the student would have brought concerns to her office or the school board first.
Currently Pisgah High has more than 30 non curricular student groups, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, noted a letter from the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Smathers said he was unaware of the situation until recently. However, he did receive a call from Christopher Brooks, who is the director of ACLU for North Carolina, and is now planning to research the matter so he can advise the school board where to go from here.
"I will say this, we do not discriminate," Smathers said. "We do not deny access, that's our policy."