In 2014, Kieran Horne and a handful of friends from Van Buren High School launched the school’s first Secular Student Alliance. Two years later, the group is no more.
The SSA is a national organization that, according to its website, has nonprofit standing. Its purpose: “to educate high school and college students about the value of scientific reason and the intellectual basis of secularism in its atheistic and humanistic manifestations.”
Horne realized his atheism at the age of 12.
“It was my grandparents who tried to raise me Christian, but my Mom and Dad are both atheists, and it was around that time that I decided nothing of what I’d been taught made much sense,” Horne said.
Carting those beliefs over to VBHS, he and two other friends — since graduated — felt it would be a good time to start a SSA chapter. For the first year under the tutelage of group sponsor and former VBHS chemistry teacher Michael Tilley, the group grew from a few to “about 50,” Horne said. (The teacher Michael Tilley is not the Michael Tilley who is co-owner and executive editor of Talk Business & Politics.)
’THEY NEVER LIKED HIM’
When asked why the group failed to continue, the 17-year-old high school senior says, “I guess the biggest thing was Mr. Tilley leaving. … The school never liked him, and he got a lot of heat for being the only secular teacher there,” Horne said.
Ordinarily a sponsor leaving for a different job as Tilley did would not influence the workings of an established student group. The Equal Access Act, a United States federal law passed in 1984, compels federally funded secondary schools to provide equal access to extracurricular clubs. While initially lobbied for by Christian groups, it became a linchpin in litigation for other groups with gay-straight and secular bents.
Yet when Tilley was gone, the group was gone. When asked about that, Horne simply replies, “We didn’t want to force some other teacher that didn’t want to do it to be our group sponsor so we sort of stopped. We just didn’t want to be the bad guy.”
In Tilley’s eyes, the students were placed in a situation they should have never had to face. In a lengthy letter detailing alleged VBHS violations of the Equal Access Act as well as alleged discriminations against secular students, Tilley named a teacher, who was particularly hostile toward the SSA group — an “announcement czar,” who would tinker with or reject announcements while not holding Christian groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) to the same standards. Tilley also said “belief-neutral” signs the SSA posted announcing upcoming meetings or events would be torn down or moved without permission or justification.
Concerning the dissolution of the SSA upon his departure, Tilley said in his letter to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) that he “was made aware that the SSA has been removed from VBHS’s list of clubs and from the club meeting schedule by [accused teacher].”
He continued: “This is not normal procedure. No other club has been immediately dissolved upon the departure of the sponsor. This is a special case of [accused teacher] removing the SSA without cause, even though (1) there is a potential volunteer sponsor already identified and (2) even without a volunteer sponsor, the EAA says that the club must be allowed to exist and should be assigned a faculty sponsor. Removing the club is a violation of the EAA and was done because [accused teacher] is biased against the group.”
Tilley said it was also relayed to him through a sympathetic teacher that the so-called “announcement czar,” upon hearing of Tilley’s departure, openly stated he “can’t wait to scratch that one [the SSA] off the list [of student clubs].”
Tilley’s letter to the FFRF resulted in a letter from the foundation to Van Buren Schools Superintendent Harold Jeffcoat. It was not the first time the FFRF approached Van Buren School officials with a complaint, though it was the first time under the two-year superintendent’s administration. In the letter, staff attorney Patrick Elliott writes that he is approaching Jeffcoat after a previous complaint filed with his predecessor regarding “prayer and proselytizing taking place at Central Elementary School.”
The three-page letter highlights new infractions involving religious displays, prayer at school events, and the aforementioned violations of the Equal Access Act. Concerning the SSA, Elliott notes that complainant (Tilley) “reports that the Secular Student Alliance at VBHS has faced discrimination and bullying since it was created.”
“In situations like this, compliance with the Equal Access Act requires the administration to assign a faculty advisor or for an administrator, such as the principal, to take on the role of an advisor.” (Link here for a PDF of the FFRF letter to the school district.)
THE SCHOOL’S RESPONSE
Jeffcoat responded one month after receiving that letter. His September 2015 e-mail response notes that “District and school administrators have reviewed the allegations as presented,” including “a review of activities related to faith and religion that are constitutionally prohibited in public schools.”
He continued: “Conversations with teachers, building administrators, and district personnel have provided information that addresses each of the accusations. I am satisfied that district personnel understand federal, state, and district expectations to perform assigned duties in compliance with federal mandates and constitutional protections. The principal of the high school will serve as custodian of the club until a permanent sponsor can be identified.”
Talk Business & Politics asked Jeffcoat for a response in the followup to this story. Jeffcoat said he remembered receiving the FFRF letter in 2015 and that after investigating all the allegations, “We informed FFR that there were no unfair restrictions placed on the former teacher’s club.”
“I’m not personally familiar with the teacher making the accusations regarding clubs,” Jeffcoat explained. “He left the district before I became superintendent. Regarding clubs, they are all held to the same standards and are given the same opportunities. If a sponsor leaves the district, another employee fills the position.”
While sponsors are available to provide assistance, Jeffcoat added, “clubs are organized and led by students.”
“If a club fails to stay together it is likely due to a lack of engagement from the student body. I can’t speak to why this particular club is no longer represented at the high school, but if any students were interested, dissolved clubs may be reconvened at anytime.”
‘WHAT HAPPENED TO TILLEY’
Horne acknowledges the school district’s willingness to find a new sponsor, but comes back to the point that the group didn’t want to force a teacher into the role given the pushback they and Tilley received, adding that “for the group to work, the sponsor probably needs to be a secular person with that same drive to have the group stand out in the same way of the religious groups that are already there (at VBHS).”
He also notes that some teachers might be willing to take it on if asked, but many of the teachers “are great teachers, but are narrow-minded.”
Also, “I’m sure they saw what happened to Tilley and don’t want to be singled out like that.”
When asked to expand on that, Horne grows uncomfortable and will only go “off the record.” Tilley’s letter doesn’t get into the specifics either, though he does note, “It is certainly true that the high school became a hostile work environment for me, particularly during my last year.”
“I presume that I might have some sort of legal recourse because of this, but I am not particularly interested in pursuing such, at least right now,” he explains. “Instead, my main goal is to identify the rights violations and prevent them from continuing.”
Tilley also alleges the club was removed from the official list of clubs when he left, which negated the students’ choice to keep the club active.
As for the future of the SSA at VBHS, Horne hopes someone will take up the cause if for no other reason than to “give people who feel like they might not have a place to go because they live in a really religious area” support.
He acknowledges it will take someone “more driven than myself” to keep it going, and believes that in spite of the pushback, most people in Van Buren are accepting. In fact, he plans to stay here after May and attend UAFS while pursuing a career path in robotics. “I do like it here,” he says. “It’s just the non-accepting group that tends to be more vocal.”
Christian Norton, the SSA’s acting communications director, who did not want to comment on the Van Buren case, did tell Talk Business & Politics that students and teachers involved in such alliances typically face maltreatment for their beliefs.
“I can say that if students feel like they are facing persecution, it can be difficult to keep a group going. If they felt like their sponsor had been forced out of a hostile work environment, it’s not surprising they would not keep the group going with that kind of backlash. It’s definitely not uncommon at the high school or college levels, and our students do face backlash for being out with their beliefs,” Norton said.
One particular stat that could be contributing to Horne’s overall feelings of societal acceptance can be seen in church attendance. A Pew Research report finds that70.6% of Americans identified as Christian — compared to 5.9% who affiliate with other religions such as Jewish, Buddhist, or Muslim, and 22.8% who are “unaffiliated.
Also, regular church attendance has been gradually declining for a number of years. In 1995, about 45% of all Protestants and Catholics attended weekly or near-weekly church services. As of 2013, those numbers had fallen to 37%. Catholics in particular have stopped attending in greater numbers since 1955 when the religion saw approximately 75% weekly/near-weekly attendance.
In Arkansas, Pew reports that 79% identify as Christians, while 3% identify as non-Christian (Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish or Muslim). Another 18% identify as unaffiliated, with 2% identifying as atheist and 3% as agnostic.
Nationally, 3.1% of Americans call themselves atheists while 4% are agnostic, and 22.8% identify as being “unaffiliated with any religion.
Data for the Pew report came from a survey of more than 35,000 Americans in all 50 states.