Atheist Group Sets Up 'Secular Safe Zones' for Non-Believing Students on US Campuses

As schools resume session this fall, high school and college campuses across the country will be offering "Secular Safe Zones," or places where non-believing students can freely discuss their thoughts on religion without the threat of being bullied.

The program was started by the Secular Student Alliance, a non-profit educational group that seeks to educate high school and college students on secularism. According to the Secular Safe Zone website, the purpose of having the program at campuses across the country is to "curtail the effects of discrimination, bullying, and social isolation faced by many secular students - especially high school students - in our society."

Any campus official, including teachers, RA's, guidance counselors, or even chaplains, can participate in the program by being a mentor to a secular student. Those wishing to make their office or classroom a Secular Safe Zone merely have to hang the group's logo that features blue, pink, yellow and green coloring on their door so students may know where the zones are.

Jesse Galef, communications director for the Secular Student Alliance, told The Atlantic that non-religious students need supportive role models so they may better develop their identities.

"Sometimes there are threats of violence against students who openly identify as atheists […] We're calling on supportive role models nationwide to stand up for these students," Galef said, adding these role models can include "teachers, guidance counselors, librarians, RAs, even chaplains, who want to create safe places for people to discuss their doubts and be open about their identities."

Galef also told the Religion News Service that the program is patterned on similar "safe zone" groups offered to teens and college students facing bullying due to their sexuality.

"We heard too many stories of bullying and harassment from our students and looked around for something to do," Galef told the RNS. "This seemed like the logical next step, and it seemed like there is a lot we can learn from what the LGBT community has done."

Since the program began this fall, there are reportedly Secular Safe Zones set up at 26 high schools and colleges in 14 states.

Although the group promises to be inclusive, even of religious students, the question remains whether the group will ultimately marginalize the student population or unify it. In recent years, Christians have argued that respect for religious freedom has been dwindling in America's public schools.

In recent years, there have been numerous cases relating to the violation of religious freedom in the U.S. Just last week, a 10-year-old was banned from writing about God for a school assignment at her Memphis-area elementary school, and the teacher ordered the young girl to take her work off of school premises. Earlier in 2008, a Montana high school forbade its valedictorian from mentioning God in her graduation speech. Two years later, a court found that the school had violated the valedictorian's constitutional rights to religious freedom. In another instance, Christian student Kenneth Dominguez of San Diego county sued his high school after it prohibited him from sharing his faith on campus.

Christian students have also set up their own support groups for religious youth on school campuses. For example, the Student Association of Fellowship and Evangelism is a student-led group at Steele High School in Cibolo, Texas. The group's Facebook page says their purpose is to "grow [their] relationship with Christ together," and they invite all to join. 

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