- - Monday, September 30, 2013

A 30-year-old federal law created to protect the right of Christian students to gather now is being used to protect the rights of students with opposite beliefs.

This school year, the Secular Student Alliance, a national organization advocating the rights of nonreligious students, has created “secular safe zones” on 26 college and high school campuses throughout the country.

“Christianity is so prevalent in society that it’s taken as the norm and to many atheists it’s off-putting,” said the alliance’s spokesman Jesse Galef.

Mr. Galef said the safe zones — rooms or areas set aside specifically for nonreligious students — can help build community, foster service projects and educate individuals about atheism. The safe zones are overseen primarily by student leaders and faculty member allies.

In recent years, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement were the first to exploit the Equal Protection Act to extend protection to new categories of students who were not necessarily Christian.

“We’re taking a page right out of [the LGBT] playbook,” Mr. Galef said.

The safe-zone phenomenon comes amid what demographers say is a pronounced increase in the number of nonbelievers in the past four decades.

Since 1972, the number of atheists globally has nearly tripled, while religiosity in the United States has declined from 73 percent in 2005 to 60 percent in 2012, according to the poll Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism.

The website Secularsafezone.org, in defending the need for a student refuge, cites a 2006 University of Minnesota survey that found continuing prejudice and distrust of atheists, even as cultural celebrations of “diversity” explode.

The telephone survey of 2,000 U.S. households found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.”

Atheists also were named as the minorities most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

“Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” said Penny Edgell, an associate professor of sociology at Minnesota and the study’s lead researcher.

Not everyone thinks the idea of the safe zone — a designated area where a selected group of students can go to discuss problems, air concerns or escape bullying — is always a good idea.

Christian scholar Craig Hazen, a professor at the evangelical Biola University in Los Angeles, has a simple message for people seeking refuge from opposing views.

“Get out of the safe zone, learn your position, go out into the quads and engage people,” he said.

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