Atheist student wants JHS group

JOHNSBURG – Savannah Lanz doesn’t believe in God, follow religion, or look to any higher powers, and she’s hoping to form a student group at Johnsburg High School that echoes those beliefs.

“The goal of the group is just to prove people can lead ethical and moral lives without religion, and you don’t have to believe in God,” said Lanz, 16. “It’s basically a group for people who consider themselves free-thinkers, atheists, agnostics or humanists.”

However, she’s meeting obstacles as dispute brews over the group’s purpose, potential activities, and whether it’s been approved by school administrators.

“We’ve been told they just want to discuss different philosophical issues that are facing the world,” said Dan Johnson, District 12 superintendent. “This isn’t an atheist group. It’s a philosophy club.”

Johnson also said the group’s formation hasn’t yet been approved by administrators, and that the district is awaiting the completion of paperwork.

“They have to outline and bring information to our administration,” Johnson said. “We just want to know what it’s all about.”

Meanwhile, Lanz said she was under the impression that the group – named the Johnsburg Freethinkers Society – had been approved by an assistant principal at the school, and simply wouldn’t be allowed to advertise with fliers in the building.

Lanz said the group would be a place for “outcasts” to gather.

“A lot of my teachers express conservative beliefs,” Lanz said. “You can get the vibe it’s a conservative school and a conservative town.”

Group members already are planning their first event, a night when members dress up as pirates and eat spaghetti in honor of the “Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

“It’s a philosophy mimicking God, that, ‘If you guys can believe in your God, I can believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster,’ ” Lanz said. “It’s just a silly thing that was contradicting normal Christian beliefs.”

Joseph Williams, assistant regional superintendent, said any group that forms needed to be careful not to endorse religion or take a position against it.

“Public schools are the neutral ground, and that’s a central feature of a democratic society,” Williams said.

Williams said he wasn’t aware of similar groups at other schools in the county.

Ed Yohnka, spokesman with the American Civil Liberties Union, said he hadn’t heard of too many groups of this type forming statewide, either. But if it does gain approval, it should be “student-led and student-directed” and not have a faculty adviser, he said.

“You want the school to be neutral to those things, in the same way you wouldn’t want an adviser to endorse a Bible study club,” Yohnka said.

The Rev. Scott Barrettsmith, of Spring Grove Bible Fellowship Church, said he was saddened by the group’s formation.

“It kind of breaks my heart to see that people would try and convince themselves that there’s not a God,” he said. “If somehow a person can convince themselves that God doesn’t exist, they have no one to answer to for the way they live their lives.”

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