Bob Averill's classmates at the Art Institute of Portland had finished up their work in a character development class on November 8, and were chatting to pass the time until class was over. The discussion moved toward spirituality. Averill, a Game Art Design student and a devoted atheist—he even runs a blog called Portland Atheist—sidled over and joined the conversation.
It was the last time he'd be in an Art Institute class—within two weeks, he was expelled, less than a year before he'd hoped to graduate.
In the classroom that day, Averill says one young woman was talking about her belief in energy layers and astral beings.
"I jokingly asked her if she believed in leprechauns. It turns out, she does. They live on another energy layer," Averill wrote in notes to himself later that day. "In the interest of bringing my own view to the discussion, I began to ask her how she knew these things. Again I know all too well that people can be sensitive about their spiritual beliefs, so I was pretty much walking on glass as I did so."
Averill says he wasn't trying to disprove the other student's religious beliefs, but "to convince her not to insist that they were scientifically proven."
The student, apparently offended, complained to the teacher. Averill was called into a meeting that evening, he says, with the Art Institute's dean of education, associate dean, and the dean of student affairs.
According to Averill, he was told the meeting was "because of my altercation with [the other student]." Averill says he pointed out that he'd "only offered a different viewpoint in a discussion that [my classmate] had started."
"They didn't respond well," Averill told the Mercury. "Their mantra was 'no discussing religion in school,' which is fine except that I did not initiate the conversation, she had." Averill was suspended for four days, until a judicial hearing with the dean of student affairs.
Immediately after the meeting with the deans, Averill found a classmate who had witnessed the initial conversation, and dragged him to the dean's office. "I thought I could clear this up, this is just a misunderstanding." (The witness did not respond to an inquiry from the Mercury.)
But the associate dean, Averill says, "told me she didn't want to hear from me again that day. So she reported it to the dean as rude and belligerent behavior."
At the judicial hearing, on November 17, Dean of Student Affairs Ron Engeldinger was more focused on the "rude and belligerent behavior" report from the associate dean, Averill says, than on the initial conversation about religion.
Then Engeldinger, he says, brought up the fact that Averill had had some trouble with three instructors in October. "The thing is, I had already had a meeting with the associate dean about [that]. We resolved the issue and I apologized to the professors involved." Averill was surprised that Engeldinger brought it up again.
"I expressed that I felt discriminated against as an atheist, and he informed me that mine was not a protected class of people," Averill says.
Averill has since contacted the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Freedom from Religion Foundation, based in the Midwest. He says the Freedom from Religion Foundation told him to seek legal counsel, and he expects the ACLU will respond to his inquiry within 60 days.
According to an emailed letter from Engeldinger, Averill had violated the student conduct policy. The decision to dismiss Averill was "not the result of a single action on your part, but a series of actions. I believe that, in several instances, your actions have been aggressive, demeaning, and threatening and that this demonstrates a pattern of inappropriate and unacceptable behavior," Engeldinger wrote.
The student who complained on November 8 wished to remain anonymous, but her account backs up Engeldinger's letter. Her complaint was not the only reason he was sent into the Dean's office. "The teacher even told me that my complaint was the 'last straw' as SEVERAL other complaints were stated before mine."
However, she says she "did not wish for him to be expelled or get in trouble and I had no idea that it was going to happen until after the fact."
On Monday morning, November 20, Averill met with the school's president, Dr. Steven Goldman, to appeal his dismissal. "He upheld the dean's decision to throw me out," Averill says. "He offered to re-admit me if I underwent—get this—psychiatric evaluation."
Goldman declined to discuss specifics without Averill's permission.
"I can say that we have never suspended or terminated or disciplined or otherwise troubled any student at any time about religious issues. It's never even come up as an issue," says Goldman, who also teaches a comparative religion class at the school. Given the Art Institute's liberal arts curriculum, there is no policy against discussing religion or philosophy, "or any other subject as far as I know. We have an academic community in which people are free to explore ideas."