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Duquesne rebuffs nonbelievers

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Friday, Nov. 18, 2011
 

An atheist student at Catholic-run Duquesne University is upset the school won't recognize the Duquesne Secular Society, a group for nonbelievers he helped form.

"I know Duquesne is a Catholic school," said Nick Shadowen, 21, a senior philosophy major who grew up in Harrisburg. "I did not think that meant my opinions, my lack of belief in God, would be censored. They advertise the fact that they are a diverse and international university with all kinds of people studying and working there."

Duquesne's student government oversight committee this month rejected Shadowen's request for the school to give formal recognition to the atheist group, and university officials backed that decision. Shadowen and other nonreligious students from area universities protested outside Duquesne on Thursday.

"This group does not fall in line with the university mission statement, which says Duquesne serves students through serving God," said Zachary Zeigler, 20, of Zelienople, a junior at the school and president of the Student Government Association, which certifies the school's 230 student organizations. "To allow them classroom space and money would be contrary to the mission of the university."

Without university recognition, the group cannot meet on campus, gets no funding and has no right to advertise or even make announcements on bulletin boards around the school, Shadowen said.

He says the school undermines its own argument by recognizing Jewish and Muslim student organizations and a gay/straight alliance student group, each of which conflict with the "mission" of the Catholic Church.

There's a difference, says Bridget Fare, a Duquesne spokeswoman.

"All students are certainly welcome here. But formally recognizing a student group whose main purpose is opposition to belief in God is not aligned with our mission. The purpose of those other groups is not in direct opposition to belief in God," Fare said.

Shadowen insists the secular society's mission is not contrary to the school's.

"Our group is not meant to spread atheist propaganda or undermine the mission of the school," he said.

One purpose of the group would be to dispel stereotypes about atheists, said society member Colin Stragar-Rice, 20, of New Castle, a junior at Duquesne.

"The group would allow a lot of students to come into contact with a different point of view. We also want to remove the stigma nontheistic people face," he said.

Duquesne is the only Catholic school in the region where a request for recognition has been made, said Jesse Galef, the Communications Director for the Columbus, Ohio-based Secular Student Alliance, a nonprofit group that works to organize and empower nonreligious students around the country.

"A request similar to the one made at Duquesne University has never been made at Seton Hill University," said Kary Coleman Hazen, a spokeswoman at Seton Hill, who said she did not know how the school would respond.

Other Catholic institutions, such as the University of Dayton and Notre Dame, have rejected applications from similar student groups, as has Baylor University, a Baptist-affliliated university in Waco, Texas.

DePaul University in Chicago, the nation's largest Catholic university, granted approval to an atheist group.

The legality of the rejection is apparently not in dispute, said Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

"If this was happening at Pitt, it would be a huge deal. At a religious and private university, this is not a constitutional issue," he said.

"We support the decision of Duquesne University, in fidelity to its Catholic mission, to take such a position," said Rev. Ronald Lengwin, a spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

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