WASHINGTON — Atheists need lobbyists, too.
The Secular Coalition for America has set out this year to organize chapters in all 50 states, including Nebraska and Iowa.
The coalition comprises 11 groups, among them American Atheists and the American Humanist Association. The groups have been lobbying the federal government for years, but now they see a need to influence public policy at the state level.
“Some of the most egregious violations of church-state separation are being promoted and passed at the state level, and we absolutely must act to stop it,” Edwina Rogers, the coalition's executive director, said in a statement.
“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. This year, that changes.”
The coalition will hold an initial call to organize in Nebraska on Oct. 15, part of its final round of state chapter organization.
The group has conducted similar calls in 38 states, including Iowa, although coalition spokeswoman Lauren Youngblood described that state's chapter as “not fully functional” yet.
Youngblood said the coalition always intended to organize state-level chapters but pushed up the timetable recently because of a proliferation of religious-related proposals in various states. She said religious organizations already hold huge sway over politicians.
“They've been organizing for decades and they're at the point now where they're very powerful,” she said.
She said even many people who believe in God would rather see religion kept out of their politics and government.
Those who get involved with the state chapters of the coalition will receive resources and support, such as training on how to lobby state governments.
Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said he was not overly concerned about this organizing push from those on the other side.
“Good luck, but in my view the left has already done a pretty good job of driving religion out of the public square,” Scheffler said.
He said his group's efforts are aimed at restoring the religious ideals of the country's founding fathers.
The secular coalition lays claim to the founders as well, saying it wants to uphold the separation of church and state.
Youngblood said some of the points that the group is trying to advance are ceremonial and focused on respecting nonbelievers. Other points deal with health and safety concerns, such as religious organizations in some states being exempt from government requirements.
Nebraska may not seem like the most natural environment to organize nonbelievers.
Data from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life indicate that 61 percent of Nebraskans say religion is very important in their lives, ranking the state 14th in the country and among the most religious outside the Bible belt.
But Youngblood said the secular coalition's efforts in highly religious states are particularly important.
“Just because a nonbeliever or someone of a minority religion is a minority within the state, it doesn't mean that they don't deserve representation from their government,” she said.
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