Our Humanity, Naturally

A club for humanists

How Jay Sekulow lost the culture wars

Thanks to the Religious Right, atheist clubs thrive in schools.

If atheists take over America in a generation or two, you can thank (or blame, depending on how you view it) Jay Sekulow.

Anyone immersed in the culture wars knows Sekulow, who currently runs the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the Religious Right's answer to the ACLU. Founded by fundamentalist televangelist Pat Robertson, the ACLJ asserts and defends the conservative religious agenda in the courts.

How then, you may ask, could Sekulow, as a Religious Right litigator, be responsible for spreading atheism? To answer this, we need some history.

Before Sekulow rose to prominence in the late 1980s, the Religious Right had been repeatedly frustrated in its attempts to inject Christianity into public schools. In landmark cases in the 1960s, the Supreme Court had ruled that school-sponsored prayer and Bible study were unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. In the following decades, religious conservatives saw little success in their efforts to bring Christianity back into public schools, as they were consistently blocked by Establishment Clause jurisprudence.

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Sekulow, however, turned things around for the Religious Right. In the case of Westside Community Board of Education vs. Mergens (1990) Sekulow successfully argued, using free speech principles, that public schools generally cannot prohibit formation of Christian clubs if other kinds of clubs are allowed. Since then, Bible clubs, prayer clubs, and other voluntary Christian-oriented extracurricular activities have become commonplace in public schools across the country.

At first glance, this would seem like a clear victory for religious conservatives seeking to use public schools as a beachhead for proselytizing. Although membership is voluntary, such clubs can create a culture of Christianity within public schools in communities with strong Christian churches and few dissenting alternatives. And even in more pluralistic communities, a high school Christian club, if led by a charismatic student or teacher with missionary zeal, can effectively proselytize.

What Sekulow and others on the Christian Right may not have considered, however, is that the Mergens decision opened the doors not just for Christian groups in public schools, but for other groups as well. In fact, it was a game-changer. If free speech standards dictate that Christian clubs cannot be banned, then neither can Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim clubs.

Or atheist clubs.

Twenty years ago, it was rare to find a student atheist group even on a college campus, let alone in a high school. But, thanks to Jay Sekulow, organized atheist groups are now rapidly sprouting in high schools all over the country, protected by First Amendment rights and recognized by the school administration. Atheism, unfortunately, has often been seen by the public as mysterious and foreign, as something strange and perhaps dangerous, but thanks to the Mergens decision organized atheist groups can demonstrate to young people that the secular worldview is valid, nothing to be afraid of, and certainly nothing to vilify.

Indeed, because high school atheist groups are normalizing atheism, children are seeing classmates and teachers openly and proudly identify as nonbelievers, as religious skeptics who nevertheless affirm admirable values while rejecting ancient texts and supernatural explanations of the world.

Spearheading this effort to bring atheism to public schools is a remarkable team of activists known as the Secular Student Alliance, a nonprofit organization founded only a few years ago. Until recently the SSA focused only on building college secular groups, and has had great success in doing so. Just a few months ago, however, the organization launched its high school initiative, with staff dedicated specifically to providing resources to high school students interested in starting and running secular groups. Business is booming, with atheist and humanist kids all over the country expressing interest in joining the secular movement.

The signficance of atheist groups in high schools is hard to overstate. For a minority that has long been seen as outside the mainstream, as perhaps even less patriotic (after all, we are one nation "under God"), the legitimacy that accompanies official recognition is invaluable. It becomes much harder to vilify atheists if they are meeting in the cafeteria after school, and even harder to do so when you realize that the cute classmate that you've been admiring since eighth grade is a member. Viva secularity!

Indeed, thanks to Sekulow and his efforts, atheists and secular humanists are leveling the playing field with Christianity, at least with regard to legal rights in public schools. Ironically, because the Religious Right was not happy with religion being kept out of public schools, we now have atheism enjoying an officially recognized status in those schools.

Of course, the Religious Right still has much greater wealth and resources, and it will be years before we see secular groups in the same numbers as Christian groups, but the secular community has much reason for optimism. When ancient, revelation-based religious texts are compared in a fair environment to the modern, naturalistic, reason-based worldview of secular humanism, the SSA and its members will have little to worry about.

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Text copyright 2011 Dave Niose

David Niose is legal director and former president of the American Humanist Association.

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