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New 'Safe Zones' Drive Signals Growing Push for Secular Inclusion

09/27/2013 03:39 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2013

New on the high school and college landscape as the academic year begins: "safe zones" for non-religious students who are fed up with going along to get along with the religiosity that prevails on many campuses, and with the harassment that sometimes awaits those who reveal their secular stripes.

By enlisting adults to stand up for these students and provide them refuge, the Secular Student Alliance--the organization behind the safe-zones project--is taking a page out of the gay-rights playbook and striving to make life more bearable for non-religious students who encounter hostility.

Consider the safe zones project one thrust among many in what is becoming a big new front in the on-going struggle by minority groups for full inclusion in American life. Atheists and other secular Americans are coming out of closets and demanding fair treatment and respect.

As they have every right to expect.

Jesse Galef, spokesperson for the Alliance, says the group is aiming to establish 100 school safe zones by the end of the year. It's a modest start. But be clear: The drive for secular rights is broad and growing. The Alliance is up to nearly 400 affiliate student groups on campuses across the country. And schools are just one arena in a multi-pronged push to elevate non-believing Americans from second-class status. Workplaces, the military, government buildings and meetings, electoral politics, the Boy Scouts--in these arenas and others, non-religious Americans are asserting their rights.

Buoyed by the swelling ranks of non-religious Americans, the movement has the look of something real and inexorable. "Gaining societal understanding is going to take a lot of work," Galef says. "But I'm optimistic. The LGBT movement has made incredible strides, and we expect no less."

Galef's movement is making strides, too. Recent weeks have witnessed, among other advances, the inclusion of the Secular Student Alliance in the President's Interfaith and Community Service Challenge; supportive words for non-believers from none other than the Pope, who extolled the value of atheist-Christian "open dialogue free of prejudices"; and the launch of a new political action committee dedicated to the election of more atheist, agnostic, and humanist political candidates. (There are now exactly zero avowed atheists in Congress.)

The Alliance spokesperson is right, however, when he acknowledges the hard work in store. As atheist blogger and author Hemant Mehta documents in his 2012 book "The Young Atheist's Survival Guide," atheist students sometimes pay a severe price when they reveal their non-belief and object to inappropriate religious activity at their public schools. Galef, too, reports numerous instances in which high school students have suffered retaliation for refusing to participate in school-sanctioned religious activity and encountered unfair roadblocks in setting up secular student support groups.

One recent case study comes from Floyd Central High School in Indiana. There, students trying to form a secular student club report roadblocks and reprisals: the group's fliers being torn down, members being told they're bound for hell and having objects thrown at them, and threats by the principal to shut down all student organizations to stop this one from forming.

Stories like this reflect statistics showing that atheists are among the most unpopular and mistrusted segments of American society. A survey released earlier this month by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding finds that nearly 60 percent of atheists believe that people in their workplaces "look down on them"--a figure far higher than that of any other group in the study. According to a survey this summer by the Pew organization, nearly half of Americans believe the growth in the number of seculars is bad for America.

Some atheists have made this situation worse than it needs to be by treating religious Americans with the same contempt from which atheists wish to be spared. Part of winning the respect of the religious majority is to show respect, an insight that more secular leaders are acting on. So, too, should the drive for secular rights recognize that an inclusive, religiously neutral public square--the goal we ought to be striving for--is not a faith-free zone. It's not practical, necessary, or fair to remove every vestige of religion from public spaces. To put it another way, secularists cannot reasonably expect never to be exposed to the religious expression of their fellow citizens.

But nor should atheists and other secular Americans be excluded and silenced, or face unfair consequences for speaking up about their beliefs and rights.

Some would have you believe that rejecting religion makes one morally suspect and incapable of virtuous citizenship. Nonsense. Why some people accept religion and some do not is a complicated, even mysterious matter. As growing numbers of non-religious Americans are striving to demonstrate, people can be good, and do good, without being religious.

As the recent March on Washington anniversary reminds us, the arc bends toward justice--toward fairness and inclusion. In that spirit, let's judge atheists and other seculars not on their (non)religious identity, but on the content of their character and contributions.

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