Holding signs that said "We don't bite" and "Support reason," about 20 students from three universities gathered Thursday in Uptown to protest Duquesne University's refusal to recognize a proposed secular student group.
Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh have secular, or atheist, student organizations. Last month, Duquesne senior Nick Shadowen petitioned his student government to create a similar society.
"I think it's important to have a secular group at any university, religious or not," he said. "Anyone who has been paying attention to current events or the news recognizes that religion is a serious topic, and I think it's the job of any university to allow open debate about serious issues, and to have a real debate you need two sides."
Duquesne, a Catholic school, already has Jewish and Muslim student groups, Mr. Shadowen said, adding, "I don't see why they should draw the line at non-theistic students."
But Duquesne's student government did draw the line, rejecting his petition last month.
An oversight committee reviewed Mr. Shadowen's application, looked into the work of similar groups on other campuses and voted unanimously not to approve it, said Zachary Ziegler, president of Duquesne's Student Government Association, which is in charge of recognition for student groups.
"The main difference with the Jewish and Muslim organizations is that those groups don't contradict the mission statement, which says that Duquesne serves God by serving students," Mr. Ziegler said. "Both of those student organizations recognize that there is a God. Our committee discussed the fact that this organization does not believe in God, and its positions are against the belief in God."
There was no discussion with university administrators until after the decision was made. After the fact, he said, administrators asked how they had made the decision, and then confirmed it.
A spokeswoman for Duquesne said Thursday the administration supports the decision.
Only recognized student organizations can reserve space on campus, receive funds for activities and use the university's name. On Thursday, Mr. Shadowen and his co-founder, Duquesne junior Colin Stragar-Rice, stood in silent protest for an hour at Forbes Avenue and Chatham Square in Uptown. Students in secular groups at Carnegie Mellon and Pitt supported them by holding signs and handing out fliers describing atheism.
The Secular Alliance at Pitt has about 30 dues-paying members, but meetings draw twice that, said Cate Laskovics, a senior and president of the group. Some members believe in God but "think religion should be kept out of the public realm," she said.
Ms. Laskovics said that organizations for secular students aren't hostile to faith.
"We've seen such a great benefit on our campus from having a secular group, that we feel bad not just for all the non-theistic students [at Duquesne], but for all students because they don't get to engage in those conversations and have that same support of diversity on their campus," she said.