The Humanist Dilemma: Should a Public School Student Make Waves about Religious Encroachment?

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To School or Not to School: I am an atheist and secularist and attend a high school in Texas. They don’t impose any religion on us as it’s a public school, but recently the YMCA had a meeting during school hours (lunch) in which they introduced and encouraged talk about Christianity and the Bible. I believe they’re doing this a couple times a month. I decided to research if this is allowed, as the Y is such a large organization, or if what they were doing was in violation of any laws or policies. I believe they did have permission from the principal, but the meeting was not student-led. I also learned that as a public school such meetings must take place during non-instructional hours.

The part where I’m having trouble is whether or not I should complain or inform anyone about it. In part, I feel it isn’t my place, as they are technically not hurting anybody and most of the people I mentioned this to felt it wasn’t serious enough to make a big deal about. On the other hand, I just think this is how I need to contribute to my secular “beliefs.”

Thanks to the AHA for allowing people to take up matters with you, especially people like me who are not part of a large enough atheist community.

—Losing My Lunch


Dear Lunch,

It sounds as though you would like to pursue this as a means of asserting your views, and I encourage you to do so. But first, be sure it’s not apt to cost you more than you care to pay, in terms of time and energy, or opposition and reprisal from family, friends, fellow students, teachers, staff or the community. That’s not to say don’t do it if there are any costs—there certainly will be costs, even if it’s just time spent and a few people who find you annoying. Be sure you are prepared to face whatever whirlwind you are likely to reap, whether it’s a tempest in a teapot or a hurricane.

With that caveat, I say go for it. It’s great practice standing up for smaller things when you’re young, so that you build your confidence and skills for bigger things in the future. And don’t let anyone tell you that this little thing doesn’t matter. Every encroachment, no matter how minimal, is a stepping stone to the next, more serious, muddying of the appropriate separation of church and state, and a public school is an extremely significant incubator for such issues. Consider this a test case, and you are a young Clarence Darrow. It could actually be an exciting adventure and a fabulous learning experience—even good on your college applications. (I don’t think you’ll want to go to a school where it would bar you from admission.)

Of course, if you fear that you will run into severe blowback that could ruin your high school career and beyond, feel perfectly justified in letting it pass so that you can live to fight another day. But if you do decide to go forward, please get in touch with the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center for tips on how to proceed with your case. Good luck!