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Students at Concordia College work to form secular student organization

Bjoern Kvernstuen (left) and Anthony Pilloud are starting a Secular Students of Concordia club at Concordia College in Moorhead. (Carrie Snyder/The Forum)

MOORHEAD -- A student working to start a secular student club at Concordia College said he doesn't think the group will take away from Concordia's Lutheran values.

Bjoern Kvernstuen, a music composition student from Norway, filed paperwork this past week to establish Secular Students of Concordia, which aims to be an alternative to the college's religious clubs.

"Our mission is not to convert anyone," Kvernstuen said. "But it is to let people know that there is a very adequate alternative."

The club needs approval before it's recognized as a student organization, a process that takes at least a month.

Kvernstuen has encountered no formal opposition to the group, but he's heard from some who aren't happy about it.

"In a school like this, it is a radical initiative," he said.

It took several weeks before students found a faculty member willing to be adviser for the group. "We had several interested people, but when it comes to actually putting your name down and making it formal, that's when I think people are backing up a little bit," Kvernstuen said.

Richard Gilmore, chairman of Concordia's philosophy department, said he's happy to serve as the club's adviser, and he supports its mission. "It seems to me that it's healthy to have a counter voice, a space for a different way of talking about values," Gilmore said.

Student groups can reserve space on campus for meetings, publicize meetings and invite members, said Nathalie Rinehardt, assistant director of student leadership and service. Organizations also can request funding from the Student Government Association, she said.

Anthony Pilloud, a junior who is working with Kvernstuen to establish the club, said he sees the effort as enriching Concordia, not as a rebellion. Pilloud said there are many students at Concordia who, like himself, chose the college for the academic programs and not for its religious affiliation. Once the club is official, the students plan to bring in speakers and host discussions or debates.

North Dakota State University and Minnesota State University Moorhead each have similar organizations.

NDSU's group, called Atheists, Agnostics and Secular Humanists, is in its third year. Lilie Schoenack, president of the group, said a good turnout at a meeting is about 20 people, but the club is growing.

MSUM has the Campus Freethought Alliance, which started in fall 2007 and has about 20 to 30 members who regularly attend meetings, said Adam Isaak, the group's president.

The growing local interest reflects a national trend. The Secular Student Alliance, a national umbrella organization for the secular student movement, reported this fall 159 campus groups affiliated with them. That's up from 100 in 2008 and 80 in 2007.