Atheist Lobbying Group Organizes In D.C.

A national atheist lobbying group is launching a state chapter in D.C.--and then all 50 states.

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Christians pray during a mass religious gathering prior to the Democratic National Convention.

This post was updated at 5:49 p.m. to add comment from the Family Research Council.

An atheist lobbying group announced Thursday that it was organizing a state chapter in Washington, D.C., just a day after delegates at the Democratic National Convention protested adding the word "God" back into their party's platform,

The Secular Coalition for America has spent the last 10 years lobbying at the federal level for a strong separation of church and state. SCA represents 11 member groups made up of "atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and other nontheistic Americans," according to the group.

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"But we realized recently that the most egregious legislation was coming from the state level," SCA spokeswoman Lauren Anderson Youngblood told Whispers. Over the next several months, SCA plans to organize chapters in all 50 states for more effective state-level lobbying.

These chapters will fight against legislation that attempts to insert religion or "religious privilege" into the law, she said.

Youngblood says the group sees the D.C. school voucher program, for one, as problematic. SCA believes the program favors religious schools, which are often less expensive than private schools.

"This [voucher program] is essentially pushing children into these religious institutions," she said. "That's what the voucher pays for: asking people to foot the bill for indoctrinating children with religious beliefs."

The Family Research Council, a Christian conservative group that also lobbies in D.C., is deeply critical of the group's state chapter plan.

"The national group already seems to want to make sure that those with religious beliefs don't get the first amendment rights that are granted to them," Tom McClusky, senior vice president of the Family Research Council's lobbying arm, told Whispers.

McClusky said he doesn't think SCA can succeed locally.

"We're a Christian nation. And the closer you get to the voting public, the more willing people are to fight for their rights," he said. "If these guys really want to challenge Christians, bring it on."

The SCA plans to challenge a Michigan law that seeks to prevent bullying in schools but gives exemptions to bullies who hold "a sincerely held religious belief."

Another law SCA has criticized, which exists in multiple states, allows for lower health and safety standards for religious day care centers than secular ones. In February, an infant drowned in a church-run day care center's baptismal pool, which Youngblood said could have been prevented with more stringent safety standards.

Though SCA says it tries to avoid party politics, Youngblood acknowledged the group was "disappointed" that references to God were added back into the Democratic party platform. "We outnumber many religious groups in the country," she said. "It's a shame that so many Americans who deserve equal representation are not represented."

A March study by the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life found that the majority of Americans, or 54 percent, want houses of worship to stay out of politics.

SCA says there is already evidence that the atheist group's statewide chapters will do well. When the group recently held an initial organizing call for a Virginia chapter, nearly 40 people expressed an interest in lobbying, according to Youngblood. A Colorado state chapter is already active.

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at eflock@usnews.com or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.