I’ve been following a story for a couple weeks that is compelling, inspiring, heartbreaking, and infuriating all at once. A few months ago a student at Pisgah High School in Canton, NC, tried to start an atheist group. The group would’ve been a part of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), a nationwide network of atheist and secular student groups. This is when things got out of hand.
Kalei (pronounced Kay-lee), a freshman at Pisgah, asked the assistant principal, Connie Weeks, for permission/help to start the new group, but was rebuffed. According to the SSA website, Kalei was told,
“that Weeks needed to ‘look into’ the formation of the group. At subsequent meetings, the student was told by Weeks that they should just join a different club, because the secular club didn’t ‘fit in’ to the community at Pisgah High School, and there were no faculty sponsors available — despite the Equal Access Act stating that if a sponsor couldn’t be found, the administration is required to assign one.”
Ignoring the fact that the school doesn’t cannot legally block the group from forming, the fact that Weeks attempted to block the formation of the group because it didn’t “fit in” is completely nonsensical. The entire purpose of student groups is to provide students who don’t fit in a place to have their own community. If they did fit in with everyone else, they wouldn’t need their own group. The assistant principal’s refusal to allow the secular group was especially insulting considering the fact that school already recognizes a Fellowship of Christian Athletes group.
Kalei’s father, a secular activist himself, helped her find support from national organizations. First the SSA wrote a letter to the school urging them to allow the groups formation. When the school didn’t respond, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina wrote a letter to the school, which said,
“Preventing Pisgah High students from forming an SSA group not only violates the law but is also bad policy. Nonreligious and non-Christian students within Pisgah High should have an equal opportunity to make their school a better place for themselves and their classmates. If students want to build a community as a nonreligious minority, they should be allowed to do so.”
That seemed to do the trick. It wasn’t long before the district’s attorneys informed Kalei that she would be allowed to form the group. Kalei said there were almost a dozen students interested in joining. Also, while there was some backlash from christians at the school, others were publicly standing up for Kalei’s right to form a secular group – like this brilliant blog post by a fellow student.
It seemed like a happy ending for everyone. The school got a new student group, secularists got a place to go be themselves, and nobody was sued. The school’s principal, Greg Bailey, not only granted Kalei’s request to start the club, but he also promised to look into threats made against her by other students. In an added bonus, the FFRF awarded both Kalei and her older brother Ben – who had attempted to start the group earlier without success – $1000 scholarships. The FFRF said,
“Kalei, a 9th grader who does track and basketball and typically makes the honor roll, plans to hold the first SSA meeting before the month is out. Thanks to a kind supporter, that meeting will include a pizza party.”
There was also two faculty members who volunteered to sponsor the group (a faculty advisor is required for the group, and if none had accepted the post one would’ve been appointed). Kalei even started a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for the fledgling group.
It seemed like the perfect success story, and I wish that it ended there. Unfortunately, life is a little more messy than we usually would hope.
The online fundraiser seemed to be working well, and Kalei was thrilled with the success. The site, at it’s height, had raised over $500 for the club. She wrote messages to supporters that started out hopeful. The first one said,
“I am in awe of the support from all my new friends. Some have asked where they could donate and honestly I don’t know what to say.
We finally got approved for our Secular Student club and are planning our first meeting. Please follow our Facebook page for more info.
The donations: I never expected any but I’m so thankful that you are offering to help. We will use your money wisely in support of group activities and our community service works. Funds may be used to expand student membership and in educating our peers and adults.”
Also, being quite aware of the controversial nature of her group, she suggested making t-shirts that said, “Yes, I’m in ‘that’ club.”
But as the messages continued, it seemed she was facing more and more harassment by fellow students. Just a few days after posting pictures of the flyers she wanted to put up at the school as well as the t-shirt design, she wrote this:
“I’m nervous about the first meeting this week. This morning I brought some flyers to hang up at school but I don’t think they will remain on the walls long.
We have permission to post them but if the people who continue to message me with horrible stuff sees them, I bet they tear them down.
This morning I was called “Satan” by one Christian girl who first called me a “dumb c&^t b*&^h!”
I know what I’m doing is right but it’s scary. Hopefully the students who have said they will come will actually show up.”
The very next day, the fundraiser was cancelled, and all the funds were returned to their donors. This disquieting message was the only explanation left on the site:
“It saddens us to report that due to the numerous threats and the verbal attacks on Kalei along with the vindictive which-hunt to hurt the reputations of affiliated local groups and our own family , Kalei will not be continuing with the group.
We have contacted GoFundMe and requested they return your generous donations. They have assured us that your funds will show back up in your respective accounts within 3 to 5 days.
Your love and support are priceless and we apologize in letting you down. It was our single goal to support Kalei in her efforts to start the much needed SSA club.
However, we never expected our family and friends to be sought out and demonized. Please know that we recognize the importance of the club but we can not justify our involvement with the risk of our families safety and well being.
I can’t tell you how much it pisses me off to see this happen. I’m going to make some assumptions here that I freely admit might not be accurate, but I can’t imagine they’re far off. I can just picture these other kids, proud of their Christianity, and thinking they’re doing Jesus’ work by threatening and insulting this girl. I bet their patting themselves on the back, comfortable in believing that theirs is a higher form of morality; that these heathens who dared to start their own community would defile their holy school. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that these kids who insulted and threatened Kalei believed they were being oppressed or persecuted by the existence of a secular group. That’s what it looks like in my head. I would love to find out I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine how else this story goes.
Nobody should face threats or harassment just for wanting to be a part of their own community. Sure, I’ll rail against the church, and everything I think is wrong with religion. I’ll write angry posts about the latest infringement on the separation of church and state. But what I won’t do is try to stop anyone from having their own community. I’m not trying to force churches to close down, and nor would I.
It’s disgusting that in this country, who’s very founding ideals was based on the freedom to believe as one wished without consequence, people would still face this kind of bullying just for their lack of faith. Religious people always claim that believing in god makes you a better person; that you can’t have morals without divine guidance. If that were true, why is it I so often have to hear about religious people treating everyone else like they’re dirt?
And the most insulting part about that is the alarming number of religious people in the U.S. who have the temerity to claim that they’re the ones being persecuted! When a business owner isn’t allowed to make health decisions for his employees, he screams “persecution!” When a high school coach is ordered to stop leading his players in prayer, “persecution!” When a state senator is told he cant put a symbol of his religion on state capitol grounds without letting other religions the same access, “persecution!” Every time someone tries to put a stop to the religious trying to put their stamp of ownership on every part of the nation, there’s a Christian claiming they’re being persecuted.
If you want to know what real persecution looks like, look no further than Kalei. There’s nowhere in the U.S. where Christians face those kinds of consequences just for wanting to gather. The fact that every time someone stands up to religious privilege they’re met with cries of persecution and intolerance is a slap in the face to people who actually have to struggle and fight to get their voice heard.
I have nothing but sympathy for Kalei and her family. She went above and beyond to try to make a place safe for herself and others who believed like she did. It breaks my heart that she was forced to stop, but she shouldn’t have to put her self or her family at risk for this. I look forward to the day when she gets out of her backward high school and into the real world. I feel that this is a young woman who is gonna do some great work for secular causes in her life. I don’t think this is the last time we’ll hear her name.
Thanks to Taralynn for the link.
*** Update ***
Since publishing this, I read an article written on The Friendly Atheist blog about the aftermath of this situation. I, unfortunately, got a lot of details wrong, and I apologize for that. Also, Hemant Mehta, the author of this article, did some serious digging to find some disturbing things that the district lawyers did to put a stop to this group. Go read that link, and it will give you all the information.
Also, I wanted to shine some light on a Presbyterian minister who teamed up with another teenage atheist activist in North Carolina to send a message of support to Kalei. If only more religious people were filled with the kind of class an thoughtfulness as this minister, I think the world would be a better place.