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Monday, September 19, 2005                                                                                       View Comments

Non-believers raising voice in capital

By Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Americans who don't believe in God have decided it's time they had a lobbyist in the nation's capital. Their new advocate describes herself as a "soft, fuzzy atheist."

Lori Lipman Brown starts Monday as executive director of the Secular Coalition for America. Her two goals: keep religion out of government and win respect for a stigmatized minority.

The magnitude of those challenges is, well, biblical. Think Daniel entering the lion's den, or David taking on Goliath.

Christian conservatives wield enormous clout here through a network of advocacy groups and relationships with politicians from President Bush on down. Atheists, humanists and freethinkers, as Brown's constituents call themselves, are usually ignored .

Is she scared? "Nah," says Brown, 47, an atheist with a Jewish background. "It feels good to be the first."

Brown likens atheists today to gays in the 1970s: people just coming out of the closet to fight for acceptance. "There's been so much rhetoric in the past decade about how important religion is to being a good person," she says, that "it's been scary" for people to say they don't believe in God. She vows to "use the A-word and not cringe."

In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 11% said they do not believe in God but do believe in a "universal spirit" or "higher power"; 3% said they do not believe in God or a spirit or power. In a separate question, 1% said they are atheists (those who believe there is no God), 2% said they are agnostics (those unsure whether there is a God), and 11% said they have no religious preference.

The no-preference category includes people "who may not be ready to declare themselves atheists or agnostics," Pew Director Andrew Kohut says.

Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America, counts them as non--believers — part of "a 30-million-strong constituency that is informed about the issues and votes."

Brown plans to work for non-believers in three ways:

• As part of broad coalitions fighting policies rooted in religious beliefs, such as limits on stem cell research and access to emergency contraception.

• In alliances with groups opposed to policies they believe breach the wall between church and state, such as giving taxpayer money to "faith-based" service programs.

• On causes Brown concedes are hard for politicians and the public to swallow, such as eliminating references to God from the U.S. oath of citizenship. She plans to stay out of the Pledge of Allegiance controversy for now because "the courts are on our side." Last week, a federal judge reaffirmed an earlier ruling that teacher-led recitation of the Pledge's phrase "under God" in public schools is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

Gary Bauer, a Christian conservative and former presidential candidate who now lobbies against gay marriage and for conservative values, says atheists' timing couldn't be worse, given Hurricane Katrina. "We're right in the middle of a horrible event when people are turning to God," he says. "They're going to find it very hard to get people to vote for the sort of things they're in favor of."

Brown says she doesn't expect immediate success on tough issues but, as the only advocate for non--believers in Washington, it's her job to raise them.

"We want to get people thinking about what they do that excludes us," she says. "The things that ... perpetuate the idea that we are outsiders — that we can't be patriotic or that we can't be moral or ethical — when in reality our community is tremendously active in making the world a better place to live."

A lawyer and teacher, Brown is used to controversy. As a Nevada state senator from 1992 to 1994, she fought for gun control, gay rights and abortion rights. She says she received threats and hate messages and calls.

Five humanist and atheist groups formed the Secular Coalition for America after the Sept. 11 attacks, unsettled by talk linking God and patriotism. "That was a major impetus to try to raise our profile," said Duncan Crary, a spokesman for one coalition member, the Institute for Humanist Studies in Albany, N.Y.

The institute had a lobbyist, Tim Gordinier, at the New York Legislature but nobody at Congress. "The cultural wars are going to be fought in Washington, D.C.," Gordinier says. "This is where we're going to have our skirmishes."

The first-year budget for the coalition office here, including Brown's salary and a six-month stipend for a legislative assistant, is $100,000. That's minuscule for a Washington lobbying office.

Brown, who taught college-level constitutional law as well as high school English, is taking a pay cut. "It's important to do the work, even if you're not a high-paid lobbyist," she says. "At least there'll be an atheist voice in the mix."