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Student government strikes down Duquesne Secular Society

By Jordan Power
On November 9, 2011

A Nov. 6 Student Government Association committee decision barred the official creation of a student secular society, an organization that wants to open discussion between religious and nontheistic students about the existence of God.

The proposed Duquesne Secular Society is the brainchild of Nick Shadowen, a senior philosophy major, and Colin Stragar-Rice, a junior philosophy and political science major. The DSS was proposed as a group for students who don't believe in God, such as atheists and agnostics, as well as for religious students.

Shadowen, who said he is unsure of how many students consider themselves officially a part of DSS, said he thinks the goals of the group align with the University's Catholic Mission Statement because they focus on discourse between different outlooks.

But the SGA Organization Oversight Committee denied the organization Sunday night. The six to eight senators who made up the group unanimously voted Sunday night not to bring the DSS's approval to a vote in front of the general SGA Senate, according to SGA President Zach Ziegler.

Zeigler said the DSS was denied mainly because it does not comply with Duquesne's Mission Statement.

"This organization has a non-faith-based agenda," Ziegler said. "We never got a real idea what was behind this organization."

Shadowen disagreed.

"I don't think there's anything controversial about promoting the ideals of scientific inquiry and critical thinking," Shadowen said. "This group is not made to divide students but to unite them."

The Rev. James McCloskey, vice president for Mission and Identity, agreed with Ziegler that the DSS is not a viable student organization for Duquesne.

"They [the DSS] assume positions that are antithetical to belief in God, and belief in God is at the core of our enterprise at Duquesnse," McCloskey said.

In the past two months other Catholic universities have denied similar organizations, including the Society of Freethinkers at University of Dayton and at University of Notre Dame, and the issue has received national coverage from The Washington Post and USA Today, both of which mention Duquesne and the DSS.

Ziegler added that SGA denied the DSS was denied because Shadowen rushed the process and did not meet with Cheryl Knoch, assistant vice president for Student Life, before the vote. While meeting Knoch is not required, it is mandatory for approximately 90 percent of perspective organizations because they usually have ambiguities in their constitution, Zielger said.

Shadowen, who wrote the DSS's constitution, said the idea to form the DSS began with conversations he had with Stargar-Rice in a philosophy class this semester.

The constitution states that "The DSS's presence on campus will provide a platform for honest and open debate on the merits of secularism and its role in different areas on human society. The DSS encourages respectful relations between non-theistic … and theistic students and through these relationships hopes to alleviate the various stigmas attached to nonbelievers."

Ziegler said these types of goals do not fall in line with the qualifications for student organizations at Duquesne, which receive University funding.

Knoch said all student organizations need to fall in line with the principles of Duquesne.

"It has to be a realistic organization that fits within the Mission," she said.

Duquesne allowed the creation of other student organizations that do not adhere to Christian doctrine. The Muslim Student Association and Jewish Student Organization are viable funded student groups under Spiritan Campus Ministry. Duquesne also allowed the organization of Lambda Gay-Straight Alliance in 2005, even though at the time some Catholic students protested that the organization contradicted the University mission statement because the Catholic Church does not support homosexual relationships.

Ziegler added that the DSS was also denied because Spiritan Campus Ministry already provides discourse between religious and nonreligious students.

McCloskey agreed, but added that campus ministry does not provide nontheistic programs.

"I think the approach of campus ministry is a unique one. It welcomes all students. It encourages dialogue," McCloskey said. "But there is no specific program for that [atheistic students]."

Shadowen said the SGA striking down the DSS but allowing organizations for Muslim, Jewish and gay and lesbian students is unfair because none of those organizations align with Catholic teachings.

But Ziegler said the organizations such as the MSA and the JSO are allowed student organizations because they are not solely about religion.

"The thing is, those are not religion-oriented," Ziegler said. "That's a facet of it, but they're cultural."

The DSS can appeal the SGA's vote, but only after one year. The group is also not approved to advertise meetings or events on campus since they are not an official student organization.

Shadowen said he planned to appeal the process with the administration and would meet with DSS members to decide how to do so.

"It's a clear case of discrimination," he said. We're not going anywhere. We're going to stick this out."


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