(RNS) A North Carolina high school student who sought to establish a school club for nonbelievers has reversed course after what she and her family have described as harassment and threats.

Kalei Wilson. Photo courtesy of Cash Atheos

Kalei Wilson, 15, pictured here, and her brother, Ben, 17, asked to launch a chapter of Secular Student Alliance, a national organization of college and high school students, at Pisgah High School in Canton, N.C. Photo courtesy of Cash Atheos


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Last October, Kalei Wilson, 15, and her brother, Ben, 17, asked to launch a chapter of Secular Student Alliance, a national organization of college and high school students, at Pisgah High School in Canton, N.C.

Documents sent in February by the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina on behalf of the students claim the brother and sister made multiple requests that were ignored and not dealt with in a timely manner by the school. They warned administrators that ignoring the students’ requests placed the school in violation of the Equal Access Act.

Several days later, Kalei Wilson announced she had been granted permission to start a club. Ben Wilson no longer attends Pisgah High School.

“To me it means change and improvement in the school,” she said at the time. “I hope to teach them more about equality and the separation between church and state.”

But within a week, she reversed course, saying she and her family had been threatened and harassed. They declined to comment for this story, citing concerns for their safety.

Pat Smathers, an attorney for the Haywood County Schools, which includes Pisgah High School, disputes Kalei and Ben Wilson’s claims in a letter written on behalf of school administrators and sent to the foundation and the ACLU-NC and obtained by Religion News Service. He says he undertook an investigation of the matter and has several “concerns,” including the alleged criminal past of Cash Wilson, Kalei and Ben Wilson’s father.

“It is my opinion your allegations on behalf of Kalei Wilson and Ben Wilson … are without merit and baseless,” Smathers’ letter states. “In my opinion, the allegations arise from a manufactured controversy caused by Mr. Wilson’s influence on his children and a desire for publicity and financial gain. Further, that your respective organizations either unwittingly or willingly have participated in the same.”

The Freedom from Religion Foundation said in a statement that it was standing by its original assessment, calling the students’ complaints “credible” and describing the school’s investigation as “retaliatory.”

“It is unfortunate that Haywood County School officials and Attorney Smathers seem to have retaliated against students for bringing forth valid complaints about their ability to form a secular club at their school,” the statement reads. “We are troubled by the report, which contains many factual errors and focuses on matters that are irrelevant to forming a student club. Persons or organizations who may have been defamed and/or retaliated against by the school system might need to consider legal recourse.”

The ACLU of North Carolina also stands by its original assessment of Kalei and Ben Wilson’s claims.

“We will continue to support the right of all students to form extracurricular clubs at their schools,” said Christopher Brook, legal director of the ACLU-NC. “We further call on county officials to respond to such student requests equitably, promptly, and without resorting to tactics that serve to dissuade student free expression.”

Jessica Kirsner, a development associate with Secular Student Alliance, called Kalei Wilson’s reasons for not going ahead with the club “bullying beyond what any student should have to face.”

“We are still thrilled to have Kalei as a member of the SSA,” she said in response to an email query, “as an exemplary student activist, and as an example to other students on how to deal with a difficult situation.”

YS/AMB END WINSTON

40 Comments

    • “The whole of religion is so patently infantile,
      so foreign to reality,
      that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful
      to think that the great majority will never be able
      to rise above this pathetic view of life.”

      - Sigmund Freud

          • Micahel Stevens

            26 For I say unto you, That unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him.

            27 But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.

            28 And when he had thus spoken, he went before, ascending up to Jerusalem.

            How is that not a [expletive deleted] command.

  1. In weighing the likelihood of hostile reaction from the Canton Christian community to Kalei’s effort to form a secularist club at Pisgah High School it’s important to consider that not all Christian congregations are the same and that certain ones can indeed be hives for anger, outrage and action against Kalei and her club. I would direct people to consider the influential High Street Baptist Church in downtown Canton as a locale where deep hostility to Kalei would readily be fomented and encouraged. We need look no further than Chris Willet, the reverend of High Street Baptist Church, to get a taste and idea of what’s he believes is called for in a situation like this and how he rallies his congregation against secularism, Atheism and the ACLU. We must note that Reverend Willet is a pillar of the local community and the High Street Baptist Church is a popular church in Canton. While High Street has not posted Rev. Willet’s sermon from last Sunday (the contents of which I am very curious about) a sampling of earlier sermons can prove most informative, especially a recent one entitled “All Is Not Fair In War”. In this December 1, 2013 sermon Rev Willet proclaims that the ACLU and Atheists are the active servants of Satan and are at war with the church. He admonishes his congregation that “there is no Geneva Convention in this war” and tells them that they must arm themselves and gather their ammunition. He informs his congregation that the normal rules and proscriptions do not apply (this includes the Ten Commandments – so “Thou shalt bear no false witness” is out the window along with any other limitation on Christians in the fight against satanic secularism). http://highstreetbaptist.org/wp-content/themes/Micah/includes/sermon-popup/?mp3=http://highstreetbaptist.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/audiosermon/All%20Is%20Not%20Fair%20In%20War_sermon_only.mp3&ogg=&title=All%20Is%20Not%20Fair%20In%20War

    • Jonathan J. Turner

      Thank’s to Clark Chapin for the link to Rev. Chris Willet’s sermon, to which I have just listened.

      Rev. Willet did indeed proclaim that there was “no Geneva Convention in this war,” and the congregation “must arm themselves and gather their ammunition.” Now the “war” he referred to was the religious (Christian) containment advocacy prominently waged by Barry Lynn, the ACLU, and many others. Rev. Willet took their collective advocacy to be the continuing work of Satan, no doubt.

      I feel that Clark Chapin, in his posting, has somewhat overspun Rev. Willet’s remarks out of their context, though, in two places.

      First, my impression of the use of “arms” and “ammunition” is that “arms” refer to strengthened allegiance with Christ the Word, and “ammunition” to a firmer knowledge and witness of the scriptures.

      Second, Clark Chapin concludes “He informs his congregation that the normal rules and proscriptions do not apply (this includes the Ten Commandments – so ‘Thou shalt bear no false witness’ is out the window along with any other limitation on Christians in the fight against satanic secularism)”

      I did not hear anything about suspending the “normal rules” of Christianity such as the Ten Commandments, so I think the syllogistic conclusion of the entire parenthetical phrase is biased by Mr. Chapin’s own interests and values.

      However, Willet certainly did make clear that he felt that his opponent Satan was no observer of conventions, nor rules of engagement, nor would give up any time soon; but the arms and ammunition he relied on for future victories was Christ and the scriptures, respectively, at least in that sermon.

      • Jonathan – I’m very glad you gave a listen to Rev Willet’s sermon. I believe that my interpretation of Rev Willet’s sermon, insofar as effect, is not hyperbolic in the least if one considers the norm in Canton, NC, which I am a neighbor to.

        Canton is an old factory town made up of hard-scrabble laborers, tradesmen and a business and professional class that were well used to the ethos required for local persistence with such dependency upon 1 mill. While they still have their factory their downtown and the heartlessness of management has left with the sale of the factory to the workers, the life remains hard-nosed and not welcoming to outsiders. With little other social recreation in town the Churches remain true centers for community, each congregation playing a big role in the lives of its members.

        While natural beauty and parks lie spread around outside the town Canton itself remains dreary and increasingly geared toward a generational exodus down I-40 either East or West. People pass through, but few tourists’ dollars land in the place. Backwoods mentalities also still have a strong enticement and effect in many congregations. Guns are as big or bigger there as anywhere you may seek to compare it with. They produce an outsized crop of soldiers for their smaller size and patriotism, sports and their Churches are the three pillars most relied on for identity.

        I have worked in Canton and have visited many times, though usually on my way somewhere else. We even looked at several houses there and considered a move. Property is cheaper.

        Now, keep in mind that even tough the workers succeeded in buying the mill years ago that generations of workers were hit hard with the loss of pensions, loss of healthcare, forced retirement and the loss of opportunity with a trimmed down factory workforce. There has long been hardship in the town and there is little relief. With a culture that has long been moulded so that self-preservation keeps an individual from directly and openly blaming institutions which are the logical causes, there is a penchant for blaming those different from most and of blaming outsiders, the government, anyone who meddles or isn’t properly connected.

        Yes – I am delivering opinion here, but damned well-informed opinion for those who care for such. And I can assure anyone that when a preacher, like Rev Willet, employs the language of war, weapons and ammunition it is sure to speak to a broad cross-section of his congregation and is received in the same way that vapid jingoism is received. It is a call to arms. When Rev Willet declares the ACLU and Atheists to be servants of satan he is identifying the enemy. When Rev Willet declares that there is no Geneva Convention he is not just saying that the Devil doesn’t fight fair, he is patriotically saying that good Christians need not fight fair – that all is fair in the war he conceives. Most of the members of the congregation will understand that he means a war like the “War on Terror”.

        Willet is an effective preacher. He knows how to hit the hot buttons and how to lead folks through the Bible to glean the most symbolic elements to enhance his message. He also is a smart enough man to know that the passage through his sermon is more important than the final message. It is the messages along the way; those directly associated with those most well-chosen elements; that make the mind. I would strongly suggest that relying on the most tepid interpretation of Rev Willet’s sermon does neither the man nor his message justice.

        • Jonathan J. Turner

          Just to follow up, I found a link to a much more detailed local accounting of this situation, from a comment attached to a prior RNS article:

          http://themountaineer.villagesoup.com/p/student-abandons-secular-club-at-pisgah-citing-threats/1134837

          Reflecting on both your posts has not changed my “most tepid interpretation of Rev. Willet’s sermon.” However, in view of the local details linked above, I wonder how tepid or kindly I should be in unpacking the context of the Wilson girl’s statement, “To me it means change and improvement in the school… I hope to teach them more about equality and the separation between church and state.”

          I feel sorry for this girl. Her family and the various “secular” enablers have let the young lady be used (and abused) as a venue for their own anti-religious agendas. This helps explain why Rev. Willet sees them as satanic, whereas I only see them, tepidly again, as simply malevolent and inept.

          • Basically you are talking about a preacher who is capitalizing on general discontent and economic turmoil in order to grab attention. What better way to rally people around you than to have a scapegoat to blame and attack. As if atheism and secularism were the cause of the town’s economic troubles.

            Like most Christian leaders he uses double-talk and makes excuses for encouraging people to act in an Un-Christlike manner. Who would Jesus threaten and bully, nobody. Your condescending attitude towards the secularists show that you have no problem with bullies but you just want to be more discreet about it.

            People who find Secularism malevolent basically say that they have no respect for religious beliefs besides their own. They do not like the idea that our society tolerates and respects views that may be different than themselves.

        • I believe this is called a “dog whistle”.
          Akin to former President Reagan launching his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi and speaking on states rights. Like a dog whistle, only those whose ears are tuned in hear it as sympathy for segragationsists., while maintaining “plausable deniability” for the speaker.

    • Re: “… it’s important to consider that not all Christian congregations are the same and that certain ones can indeed be hives for anger, outrage and action against Kalei and her club.”

      That sounds all well and good, but sitting back and doing nothing, doesn’t help. Sure, there are extremists at the edge of Christianity, just as there are extremists at the edge of any religion, or for that matter, any other kind of human collective (ideologies, institutions, etc.). The question is, what are other members of that collective willing to do, in order to rein in the extremists among them?

      This is where the collective’s integrity is displayed. In this case, it may well be true that cranks like Willet don’t represent the views of the majority of Christians … but what is that majority doing about him? Are they just leaving him to say and do whatever he wants, then demanding that outside observers ignore it? If so, that’s the tactic used in The Wizard of Oz (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”). It didn’t work in the movie, and it doesn’t work in real life either.

      If it’s true that the majority of Christians disagree with the extremists, and if it’s true they vastly outnumber them, then sheer numbers alone should dictate that this majority possesses the power to exert control over, and discipline, the extremist minority.

      So … why aren’t they doing it? Why are Willet & Co. (for example) still running off at the mouth and raining invectives down on insidious, insolent non-believers?

      Just wondering out loud.

  2. End this religious bullying.
    What’s next? Burn the heathens?

    “Bring here those enemies of mine, and EXECUTE THEM in front of me.” – JESUS (luke 19:27)

    When will you people awaken to the cancer in our midst that is religion?

    • Re: “End this religious bullying.”

      You really think they will? Christians have had something like 15 centuries to figure out how to clamp down on, discipline, and control the extremists among them. But in all that time they haven’t managed to summon the courage or will to do it. That sort of thing takes work … and it’s much easier just to demand that others simply ignore the extremists, rather than contending with them directly and bringing them in line. What makes anyone think they’ll suddenly start, now?

  3. Edward Borges-Silva

    Context Max, context. To take this hyperbolic remark of Jesus and apply it literally displays a lack of discernment. He is speaking with reference to future things, when those who failed to receive Him and accept His sovereignty will be judged and condemned for their unbelief. There is no scriptural warrant in the New Testament for violence against against anyone, rather that true Christians should suffer violence without active recourse, as a demonstration of their faith.
    As to the tender mercies of Humanism, should it ultimately prevail as the reigning philosophy of the age, it will be interesting to see the level of tolerance for those who continue to answer to their own conscience.

    • @Edward Borges-Silva,

      When you are pulled over for speeding and the policeman says,
      “It is against the law to drive over 55 miles per hour”
      You don’t get to say, “No, You are taking the law out of context!”

      Don’t tell me that Hitler was wrong to love the ‘parable of the 12 minas’ (Luke 19:20) as he did. There is no guide within the Bible to help ‘interpret’ this stuff.

      Jesus preached lots of hate and he didn’t follow his own rules:

      He didn’t forgive his enemies – he sent them to Hell! (Mark 16:16)
      He cursed his enemies – “Thou Fools!”(Matt. 23:17)
      He stole things – “untie them” ..”bring them to me” (Matt. 21:2-3)
      He destroyed his enemies – “execute them in front of me”(Luke 19:27)
      He didn’t love most of his neighbors, – They are ‘Dogs’!(Matthew 15:26)
      He told people to judge others – “Remove your blessings”!(Matt 10:14)
      He was bigoted – “They are swine” (Matthew 7:6)
      He violently whipped people – attack on the temple (John 2:5)
      He didn’t want peace – “I do not bring peace.”(Matt 10:34)
      He lied to people – “He went in secret” (John 7:8-13)
      He prepared for war – “if you have money, buy a sword” (Luke 22:36-37)

      His message is deeply flawed and contradictory.
      If Jesus could behave this way and still be a Christian
      then you have to realize this is a mess!

      ASK yourself.
      If Jesus can’t follow Christianity, who can?

      • Edward Borges-Silva

        If I am pulled over for speeding and am properly ticketed, the law is explicit…the context is clear. However, there is a necessary discipline in literature which delineates rules for interpreting any given text. You consistently fail to apply those rules in your reading and citation of scripture, such as recognizing hyperbolic language, identifying metaphor, idiomatic usage, and the plain sense of the language. I will cite another example of your failure in this; a very apt one: The driving of the money changers from the Temple. Jesus took violent exception to the practice of buying and selling sacrificial animals within the precincts of the Court of the Gentiles, which was prohibited by law. They were profiting materially on the piety of those who came to worship, they were scalpers and sharpers who had no interest in the spiritual well being of those they took advantage of. Jesus was wholly justified in both His anger and His application of punishment. A noted, violation of the law has consequences. Since you cite hypocrisy in religion as one of your objections to it, I would think that in at least this one instance you would applaud such action by Jesus whether you believe Him to be God or not.

        • @Edward Borges-Silva,
          Yes. Apparently the money changers upset Jesus very much – how dare the Jewish diaspora traveling from miles away pay for doves and chickens to slaughter (in accordance with Yahweh) on the grounds of a synagogue !? Gosh!

          But no. Jesus didn’t mind if you were MAKING MONEY off the backs of SLAVES! That was NO problem!

          Jesus SUPPORTED owning slaves completely.
          No matter the misery or even if sexually perverse!

          “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are perverse.” (1 Peter 2:18)

          Too bad your Jesus didn’t whip any slave-owners! That would have been at least excusable!

          • Edward Borges-Silva

            Wrong again Max! The reference to perverse masters’ has absolutely nothing to do with sex. Your inability to understand the nuances of language is uncomprehendingly appalling. To Larry, I can fill in the blank, but who defines ‘fruit’, You, Max, who? I prefer to take what the Bible says in its proper context and stand for forgiveness and compassion without compromising what Jesus taught about holiness and obedience.

          • @Edward Borges-Silva,

            “…those who are perverse.”

            I am satisfied that “perverse” is not the issue. The important message to a slave is the same: “Don’t run away, no matter how revolting the abuse you must endure.”

            It needn’t be sexual, to be an immoral and disgusting injunction.
            Reading the Bible should pain you more than it apparently does.

    • You will know a Christian by their ______ [fill in the blank Edward]

      It is much better to judge Christians by what they do. What they claim to be doing on behalf of God. In this case they feel that God wants them to attack others who believe differently than they do. Its a frequent interpretation of Christian actions going back centuries.

      People acting badly on behalf of Christianity are still Christians acting badly. It doesn’t matter whether you can find a scriptural excuse for not considering them so. Christians frequently employ all manner of excuses and legalism to avoid acting in a Christ-like beneficent manner.

      • @Larry,
        I question your use of “Christ-like beneficent manner”

        Where is the evidence that ‘Christ-like’ is always a good thing?
        There is much more evidence that ‘Christ-like’ is a terrible thing.

        Jesus didn’t forgive his enemies – he sent them to Hell! (Mark 16:16)
        He cursed his enemies – “Thou Fools!”(Matt. 23:17)
        Jesus stole things – “untie them” ..”bring them to me” (Matt. 21:2-3)
        He destroyed his enemies – “execute them in front of me”(Luke 19:27)
        He didn’t love most of his neighbors, – They are ‘Dogs’! (Matthew 15:26)
        Jesus told people to judge others – “Remove your blessings”!(Matt 10:14)
        He was bigoted – “They are swine” (Matthew 7:6)
        Jesus whipped people (but never slave owners) – attack on the temple (John 2:5)
        Jesus didn’t want peace – “I do not bring peace.”(Matt 10:34)
        He lied to people – “He went in secret” (John 7:8-13)
        Jesus prepared for war – “if you have money, buy a sword” (Luke 22:36-37)

        It is past the time to retire the concept that “Christ-like” is a good thing.
        After all, if Jesus can’t follow the ‘rules’ of Christianity, is it any wonder nobody else can?

        Since we can thank 2000 of Atheists who have tried to point out these cruelties, perhaps “Atheist-like” kindness is the proper term to start using.

      • Edward Borges-Silva

        Further, I hold no brief with harassment or persecution of those with whom I disagree. It is possible that we may disagree on what precisely constitutes such behavior. I reserve to myself polemical argument or support of legislation which promotes traditional social values as I understand them; legislation which in a republican form of government is entitled to be considered before our elected representatives whether it passes or fails.
        I may disagree with the point of view of the young lady in question, but she is entitled to express her opinion without threat or harassment. Christians who engage in harassing or threatening behavior need to return to square one and examine themselves carefully, but I don’t agree that the defense of the faith in the proper forum is wrong.

        • @EDWARD BORGES-SILVA,
          You said, “I hold no brief with harassment or persecution of those with whom I disagree.”

          Your morality is vastly superior to the God you defend. He would send those who disagree with Him straight to eternal Hell. Without apology.

    • @PsiCop,
      The only way to stop the bullying is to awaken those who can be awakened.
      The bully is the god delusion itself.

      All we need in this life is curiosity and love. No gods.
      The nonsense of religion must be abandoned.

  4. “It is my opinion your allegations on behalf of Kalei Wilson and Ben Wilson … are without merit and baseless,” [Attorney for Haywood County Schools] Smathers’ letter states. “In my opinion, the allegations arise from a manufactured controversy caused by Mr. Wilson’s influence on his children and a desire for publicity and financial gain.”

    It seems that Attorney Smathers’ investigation and report are not only an attempt to intimidate the students and their family members but to shift responsibility and blame from the Haywood County Schools administrators and their personnel at Pisgah High School (PHS) to the Wilsons. This is not unexpected, since his job is to represent his client, Haywood County Schools, and to protect them from legal liability.

    However, it is not a student’s or parent’s responsibility to educate school administrators and personnel about their legal obligations. It is the responsibility of school administrators, and perhaps their legal counsel, to be sure that they and their personnel understand those obligations.

    I propose that Ben Wilson’s inquiries into starting a Secular Student Alliance (SSA) at PHS last year were not handled in accordance with the schools legal obligations, which would explain why a letter was sent to PHS Principal Bailey by the SSA last fall. Did Bailey not receive that letter? Did he not think it was credible or significant enough to share with the school’s legal counsel, the administrators he reports to, or the personnel that report to him, particularly those that handle inquiries regarding the formation of student clubs?

    Given this, why would Smathers not conclude that the allegations arose from PHS Principal Bailey’s failure to take appropriate action on the information provided to him by the SSA last fall? Who dropped the ball at the Haywood County Schools? Did Principal Bailey ignore the SSA’s letter and not properly educate his personnel about their legal obligations? Was that letter brought to the attention of his superiors or the school’s legal counsel and did they fail to take appropriate action? Who bears responsibility for the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union becoming involved this year?

    I see no indication that this situation resulted from anything other than a lack of competence and professionalism on the part of Haywood County Schools, their administrators or their personnel. Perhaps it was simply a lack of effective communication among them. Regardless, it is clear that somebody failed in their responsibility to take appropriate action, and it was certainly not Ben, Kalei or any other member of the Wilson family.

  5. Earold Gunter

    Kalei, You are obviously both an intelligent, and courageous young lady. I applaud what you have tried to accomplish. I also applaud that you decided not to, for the reasons you did. Family is the most important thing is life.

    I am extremely happy that you recognize that religion is a false belief, and am even more exited that you are not an anomaly among our youth. You may very well live to see the day where those adults who profess belief in religion relegated to the same social position as children who profess belief in santa clause.

    Hold your head high young lady. You already have much to be proud of, and am confident that you will have so much more in your future.

    Thank you for carrying the torch!!

    Religion is poison!!

  6. Chuck Zimmerman

    The North Carolina Constitution’s Religious Liberty Clause is quite clear:”All persons have a natural and inalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience, and no human authority shall, in any case whatsoever, control or interferre with the rights of conscience.”
    Any “human authority” that is bound by OUR Constitution is obligated to abide by this.

  7. Surely there’s a few prides of lions that could use a good meal. Seems such dregs of humanity as Pat Smathers, the Haywood County Schools administrators, Chris Willet, and their supporters would make a good start. Christianity, and America, would be better off (as for the lions, it’s hard to say…perhaps those derps are as disagreeable to the digestive tract as they are to humanity).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.