Students participating in religious clubs outside of school, sparks a conversation about secularism within the halls of UAHS.

By Molly Mitchell, ’20 and Josie Stewart, ’21

Upper Arlington High School is a public institution with a public mission, vision and set of values. Within the school, there are students and staff who exhibit diversity of thought, sexuality, race and faith. Among these topics, the concept of different religious viewpoints can be subject to controversy because of its emotional weight and varying implications for student and staff life.

According to a voluntary Arlingtonian survey of 238 students and staff members, 58 percent of responders report that they identify with a set of religious beliefs. Among these responses, students and staff said they identify with 1 of 14 different religious affiliations.

YOUNG LIFE

Young Life is a non-denominational Christian ministry founded in Texas with branches extending into 90 countries and all 50 states. With a mission to introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith, the Upper Arlington community of Young Life volunteers and staff invite UAHS students to partake in Club and Campaigners on Monday and Wednesday nights.

Students are given the opportunity to build connections with Ohio State University student volunteers while meeting like-minded peers at the high school. In the 2018-2019 school year, students remember seeing Young Life volunteers in the hallways talking with students after school.

Principal Andrew Theado addresses their presence in the hallways, assuring secularism is practiced. “UA Young Life is not affiliated with Upper Arlington High School,” Theado said. “As a public institution, every employee here is obligated to support every single kid, so we cannot bring our own personal beliefs into that.”

Theado believes confusion about this secularization could stem from how we identify clubs at UAHS.

Administration is focused on defining student life at the high school, including how clubs are sponsored or not sponsored by administration. There are a few clubs that are affiliated with Upper Arlington High School and there are a much larger quantity of clubs that meet in Upper Arlington High School without this affiliation.

“There is a difference,” Theado said. “[Young Life] is allowed to, just like any other organization, rent our space as long as they go through the right processes. Young Life does, as they have [in the past], rent out our space. [They] have held meetings in our space, which we allow organizations to do. That’s not anything new.” This separation between Young Life and the school can be blurred to students sometimes, but Theado assures that there is no direct connection, nor should there be with students.

“Are these folks [from Young Life], or any folks, really coming into the building and recruiting folks or recruiting students for religious types of clubs? If that is happening, then that needs to stop,” Theado said. “That should not be happening.”

Theado said that an anonymous student has recently expressed concern to him in this, but that the school will look into any accusations of forcing religion into the high school or trying to get students to join religious groups.

“Just like every organization, there are folks who are doing all the right things and there are folks who are probably not doing everything right,” he said. “And I know that for students, there are some who probably get a lot of good things out of Young Life, and there’s definitely students who do not.”

EXCLUSION OR INCLUSION

In the same Arlingtonian survey, 57 percent of students identified with either Catholicism or Non-Denominational Christianity. Junior Nicholas Jackson believes that because more than half of the school associated with Christianity in some form, students who identify with different beliefs or lack there of, can be excluded from conversations and groups.

“Obviously the majority of the school is Christian. They subscribe to religion,”
Jackson said. “So it is logical to have places like [Young Life] for [Christian] kids to go. But what about the small population of kids who are Muslim or Jewish? I think to a certain extent, you can provide opportunities for them, but it’s hard to definitely get all of them and it’s hard to draw a line. So yes, you just have to do your best and let them know that there are places for them that they can feel comfortable with and find common ground with people.”

German teacher and leader of Ambassadors of Change Tricia Fellinger also believes inclusion is very important, including when talking about religion.

“I think that students make comments that are inappropriate but they don’t understand how hurtful it is to that person,” Fellinger said. “And so, I think that that can happen and I think that sometimes people make associations [concerning religion]. For example, maybe they make associations between Muslims and terrorists. That’s really hurtful to that person, to that community.”

Both Fellinger and Jackson also mention the students who are atheist or agnostic with a lack of belief or lack of knowledge of religion.

“I think that maybe some students who are atheist could feel isolated because if you think about it, our culture is so impacted by Christiany. We take it so much for granted because we’ve grown up with it even if you’re not a religious person,” Fellinger said. “Our practices are often based on Christianity like holidays and days that we have off.”

This is shown throughout school and occasionally the community, but for Jackson it happens even more often in his IB World Religions course while having class discussions with students who mainly identify as Christian.

“Sometimes just by circumstance, you’re in a place where a lot of people think the same way… and you feel you are the only outsider,” he said. “Which is not really anyone’s fault. It’s just kind of a byproduct of [being] in a class with Christians. Obviously, it’s gonna feel weird.”

The exclusion of some students spans outside of different beliefs and religions, especially when considering Christian groups such as Young Life.

Young Life as an organization, is said to discourage “acts on homosexual desires.” There was speculation in May that a college-aged leader for Young Life UA was let go due to her open support of LGBTQ+ students. This leader, as well as Chris Ramsey, Young Life Central Columbus staff member, declined to comment on the matter. *see below for additional coverage

Junior Harrison Frenken, who attends Young Life UA events, said he was not aware that the international organization is said to not support the LGBTQ+ community.

Although Frenken does not identify with a specific belief system or religion, he says he goes to Young Life about once every week because he finds the organization and activities interesting.

Frenken himself is a supporter of homosexuality as his uncle is gay.

“I find the idea that [gay people cannot be leaders] pretty disturbing because even if you are gay you should still have the opportunity to teach younger kids and hang out with them to show them a step into your life and into your beliefs,” he said.

Frenken also said that the students who he talks to in the Upper Arlington chapter are also supporters of homosexuality and the leaders do not mention their stance on the topic at all.

Although students who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community are permitted to participate in all Young Life activities, some students are discouraged because they feel they are not supported by the organization in general.

Junior Mary Molnar who is a part of the LGBTQ+ community thinks that students should not support the part of the organization that does not accept homosexuality.

“I think it’s stupid [if people do not support homosexuality due to religion.] I don’t care about religion—you can do whatever you want—that’s fine,” Molnar said. “I’m not against that, obviously. I think it’s just an excuse to be a jerk.”

Molnar, similar to Frenken, was also not aware that the group is said to not support homosexuality and leaders were not allowed to be part of that community.

“I don’t agree with the [fact that gay people cannot be leaders.] I doubt many people knew that in the first place. I don’t know, though,” she said. “That sucks to hear that. I don’t think people should be not supporting such a big part of the school’s community.”

WHERE TO GO

Although the high school may look into the connections between the program and the school, Theado said that UAHS offers many other chances for students to be involved with like-minded peers through school programs, student clubs or school-affiliated clubs.

Fellinger similarly believes in the importance of inclusion in everything in the high school whether relating to religion or otherwise.

“I think that [inclusion] plays a huge role in building a community—a community where students can learn and can thrive,” she said. “There is a relationship between students feeling like they belong to a community and being able to learn and to grow. Not just to grow as a student, but to grow as a human being.”

Jackson mentions this specifically, especially considering his experiences in IB World Religions where students from all belief systems and ideas can share.

“I think that everyone’s a little hesitant to talk about [religion] at first, because it is kind of a touchy subject. But when you do let go of that fear a little and express your views, you find that a lot of people will do the same,” Jackson said. “[People have] similar viewpoints, and then you can kind of congregate and then form common ground with them. [That] makes you feel a little better about expressing yourself.”

Topics such as religion can be uncomfortable for some people because of the wide range of views.

“You just kind of kind of have to focus on the conversation. Sometimes when you have a conversation full of all religious people, it’s important to have a perspective of a religious atheist. But sometimes you get that ‘group thing’ when you don’t have a different perspective and you kind of start bouncing similar ideas off of each other and it becomes kind of an echo chamber,” Jackson said.


*43 days after Arlingtonian reporters initially reached out for an interview and eight hours after this story had been sent to press, Young Life Central Columbus leader Chris Ramsey issued a statement to Arlingtonian regarding what is covered in this story.

“Young Life exists because we care about kids and want to make a positive impact in their lives. We welcome all kids, regardless of race, religion, ability, sexual orientation or identity, and we hope that each will experience unconditional love through safe relationships with caring adults – with welcoming activities that encourage trust, and with a message of hope. Because we’re a ministry, we communicate what we believe to be the truth about the Christian faith in terms kids can understand. We believe kids deserve to make their own decision about the Christian faith, and that they deserve to be cared for whatever their decision is. As we care for and spend time with kids, we always seek to follow school guidelines regarding access. Regarding the recent departure of [the leader], it’s our policy not to comment on why staff or volunteers leave Young Life. We appreciate her care for kids and are grateful for her time with Young Life,” Ramsey wrote.