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You've Gotta Believe: Duquesne refuses formation of student atheist group 

"Duquesne is first and foremost a university, not a religious institution,"

Nick Shadowen didn't necessarily think his proposed atheist club would be welcomed at Duquesne University with open arms. After all, with 10,000 enrolled students, Duquesne is the state's largest private Catholic university.

Still, the university senior thought the proposed Duquesne Secular Society would be approved nonetheless. It wasn't. He now says nonreligious views at the school are getting the cold shoulder.

"Duquesne failed to live up to their mission statement," Shadowen says, referring to the "Celebrating Diversity" banner adorning one of the school's web pages. "In discriminating against atheist groups, they are blatantly hypocritical."

The rejection came at the hands of the Organization Oversight Committee, a branch of Duquesne's Student Government Association that reviews applications from student groups seeking formal recognition. When applying for formal recognition, student-government bylaws require student organizations to comply with school rules and "the Mission statement of the University."

Duquesne's mission statement asserts that "It is the Spirit who gives life." 

The SGA's committee unanimously voted not to allow the club to come up for a vote of the full student-government body. SGA President Zachary Zeigler said the group did not meet the school's organizational requirements. He declined to comment further.

Administrators welcomed the decision. According to Duquesne spokesperson Bridget Fare, an officially recognized atheist group on campus would compromise the school's underlying Catholic values.

 "The group does not comply with the University's mission and its positions are against the belief in God," Fare wrote in an email. "Duquesne University is a faith-based institution and, while all students are welcome and have an opportunity to meet informally, officially recognizing a group that is opposed to the belief in God is not consistent with our mission."

But Shadowen points out that the institution already recognizes student organizations whose members don't subscribe to Catholic teaching. Duquesne student groups include organizations for Jewish and Muslim students, as well as a gay/straight alliance.  

Shadowen says his organization promoted critical thinking about religion amidst an array of differing opinions -- a fundamental aspect of any academic institution, he says.

"Duquesne is first and foremost a university, not a religious institution," says the philosophy major. "Anyone who's planning on attending Duquesne, and who wants to engage in intellectual debates with competing voices … might want to consider attending another university."

The decision is similar to those made at other religiously affiliated schools. The Washington Post reports that Dayton, Notre Dame and Baylor universities have also denied requests to form groups catering to agnostics, humanists and other nontheistic students.

Jesse Galef, communications director for the Student Secular Alliance (SSA), a Columbus, Ohio-based nonprofit that promotes secular discussions among students, says schools aiming to serve their students should welcome all groups. While private schools have the right to police groups according to their beliefs, "that doesn't make it right," he says. "It's a social issue, not a legal issue."

Galef says there has been a movement toward secularism on campus. Two years ago, there were 195 SSA-affiliated groups nationwide; today there are 320.

"It's really a big trend, especially in younger generations," he says.

Cate Laskovics, a University of Pittsburgh senior and president of the school's Secular Alliance group, offered Shadowen guidance on establishing a similar group at Duquesne. When she caught wind of the rejection, Laskovics says she began rounding up members of Pitt's Secular Alliance group to protest at a later date.

 "I don't know why atheists are being singled out," she says. 

For now, the group is prohibited from meeting formally on school grounds and from receiving funds and resources, according to Shadowen.

"The school itself failed to add a new perspective," Shadowen says, noting that the spurned group will meet -- off campus -- to figure out its next step. "We want to see this thing through; we want to give the university another opportunity to improve the intellectual atmosphere on campus."

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