Atheists Organize: Emily's List-Type PAC Launches to Support Nonbelievers, 'Closeted' Atheists

Thirty current members of Congress are discreet nonbelievers, Secular Coalition leader says.

Freshmen members of the 113th Congress pose for a class picture on Nov. 15, 2012, in Washington, D.C. Atheists hope to help elect a few likeminded members in 2014.
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It's billing itself as the first political action committee for the irreligious that has full-time staff, and it's looking for promising atheist candidates and allies to support in 2014.

Bishop McNeill, the Freethought Equality Fund's only full-time staffer, told U.S. News it's still tough to be an atheist with national political ambitions, but he's hopeful the PAC will help change that.

"People need to see ethical nonbelievers in positions of power to rid that negative stigma," McNeill said.

The PAC, launched by the Center for Humanist Activism, aims to replicate the success of EMILY's List, the group founded in the mid-1980s to help increase then-tiny female political representation.

Although it plans to support "candidates who identify as humanist, atheist [and] agnostic," the PAC's organizers may need to settle for the second-best option: candidates who say they are religious but support secular policies, such as opposing the teaching of creationism and dismissing religious arguments against same-sex marriage and abortion.

[READ: Few 'No Religion' Americans Are Atheists]

McNeill says the PAC will likely support "closeted" atheists who keep their Godlessness out of the public eye.

"It's not my place to out anybody," he said, "and we are not just supporting people who are willing to come out of the closet with their religious beliefs."

McNeill said "there are members of the current Congress who are definitely atheists." The only member of Congress who openly identifies her religion as "none" is Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

In 2011 there were 28 members of Congress with "no belief in God," Herb Silverman, then president of the Secular Coalition for America, told The Guardian. The only open atheist at the time was Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., who has since retired.

[RELATED: Atheist Lobbying Group Organizes In D.C.]

Edwina Rogers, executive director of the SCA, said "we have 31" members of Congress now who privately admit their disbelief in religion. Each of the 30 non-public nonbelievers privately confided their nontheism – after being assured anonymity – to Woody Kaplan, chair of the SCA advisory board, Rogers said.

The coalition does not recruit political candidates itself, Rogers said, and is focused on lobbying and "facilitating coordination within the movement so we're basically a well-oiled machine."

In the future the SCA will form its own political action committee, Rogers said. The American Humanist Association is also launching a PAC, American Atheist is considering doing so and so too are secular Jews, she said.

McNeill said his PAC is preparing to make endorsements soon, even though the next congressional election is more than a year away. He said Sinema is a good example of a candidate they would support and he's particularly impressed by the policy positions of California Democrat Lee Rogers, who is seeking to unseat Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif.

"I don't have any false hopes that things will change in 2 years," McNeill said. "It may be 10, 15, 20 years" before politicians feel comfortable acknowledging their lack of religion, he said.

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