Atheists to launch Tennessee lobbying group

8:44 AM, Jul 11, 2012   |    comments
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By Bob Smietana, The Tennessean

A national atheist group plans to organize a lobbying group in Tennessee to advocate for stronger separation of church and state.

The Washington, D.C.-based Secular Coalition for America announced plans Tuesday to set up a local chapter aimed at giving local atheists more political clout.

It's part of an effort to organize coalition chapters in all 50 states.

"There are 40 million Americans who don't identify with any religion, but our political influence has been limited because we have not been organized," said Edwina Rogers, executive director of the coalition, in an email Monday. "This year, that changes."

The coalition, made up of 11 atheist and secular humanist groups, has focused on federal lobbying in the past. Now it is concerned about state laws, like the so-called "Monkey Bill" in Tennessee that allows teachers to question evolution.

Critics see the bill, which was passed earlier this year, as an excuse to teach creationism.

Laura Anderson Youngblood, communications manager for the Secular Coalition, said the first step in Tennessee is an organizational meeting with potential members, to be held by conference call on Tuesday.

The group will then train local members and help with logistics like setting up a website.

Youngblood said the coalition is not anti-religion, as long as that faith remains personal.

"We are not trying to tell people that their religion is wrong," said Youngblood. "We take issue with religious beliefs being inserted into secular law."

Thaddeus Schwartz of Secular Life, a local social group for nonbelievers, said he plans to take part in next week's conference call.

He said local nonbelievers have been reluctant to become involved in politics and protests. But he thinks the coalition's focus on the separation of church and state - and not on criticizing religion - is a good idea.

"People who believe and who don't believe ought to have the same protections," he said.

Nationwide, only about 1.6 percent of Americans identify as atheists or agnostics, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. But about 15 percent of Americans are "Nones" - those with no particular religious affiliation.

Schwartz said it's hard to get nonbelievers organized because they are independent by nature and have no common beliefs to rally around.

"Getting organized is always a challenge," he said.

Kevin Pierce of Franklin, who calls himself a secular humanist, has been skeptical of some bills passed recently in Tennessee. He thinks the lobbying group is a good idea.

Whether it will work is a different story.

"They'll definitely face an uphill battle here in Tennessee," he said.

Youngblood said the local chapter won't be limited to nonbelievers. Anyone who supports the separation of religion from secular law is welcome, she said.

Ginny Welsch, president of the Nashville chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said her group is not part of the coalition. She said some of the recent controversy over health-care reform shows that groups like the Secular Coalition are needed.

"Why in 2012 are we even talking about things like whether insurance plans should have to cover contraception?" she said. "This is just one example of religious extremism at work and a prime example of why groups like the Secular Coalition organizing to fight against it is important, and necessary."

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