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.
Washington, D.C.-based Secular Coalition for America announced plans
Tuesday to set up a local chapter aimed at giving local atheists more
It's part of an effort to organize coalition chapters in all 50 states.
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."
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.
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.
are not trying to tell people that their religion is wrong," said
Youngblood. "We take issue with religious beliefs being inserted into
Thaddeus Schwartz of Secular Life, a local social
group for nonbelievers, said he plans to take part in next week's
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.
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
Schwartz said it's hard to get nonbelievers organized
because they are independent by nature and have no common beliefs to
"Getting organized is always a challenge," he said.
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.
said the local chapter won't be limited to nonbelievers. Anyone who
supports the separation of religion from secular law is welcome, she
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
"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."