The nonbelievers are fighting back.
The Secular Coalition for America — which sees itself as the voice of America’s agnostics, humanists and nontheists — has just hired its first full-time Washington lobbyist: former Nevada state senator Lori Lipman Brown, a longtime civil rights activist. Her job will be to seek out alliances with Jewish groups to fight the religious right, and demand government and public respect for nonreligious Americans, in an effort to counter what the Secular Coalition says is a “creeping theocracy” in the nation’s capital.
“Politicians are now afraid to demonize Jews and African-Americans as they once used to do, and they have stopped demonizing gays,” said Herb Silverman, president of the coalition and a self-described secular Jew who teaches mathematics at South Carolina’s College of Charleston. “It seems like atheists and humanists are the last group that the politicians feel comfortable ignoring or demonizing.”
The situation is so bad, he said, that many “nontheists feel the need to hide in the closet, just like gays used to and just like Jews several decades ago used to change their names to fit in.”
The Secular Coalition for America was formed in 2002, but it has been active only recently as a national advocacy organization. It comprises the American Humanist Association — of which Mel Lipman, Brown’s father, is president — the Atheist Alliance, the Institute for Humanist Studies, the Secular Web and the Secular Student Alliance.
Like other liberal groups, the secular coalition will fight to maintain the wall between government and religion, Silverman said.
“But the kinds of things that we are interested in were put at the back of the bus,” he added, referring to the public image of secularists. “Sure, we need to protect the right of free speech for atheist sand Satanists and the like, but we would also like to show that we’re reasonable people — we just happen not to believe in any theism and have a human-centered outlook on life.”
If the battle is chiefly one of defending civil rights, then Brown is a natural choice, Silverman said. The constitutional law professor from Las Vegas, who also is a secular Jew, first received national recognition when, as a Nevada state senator, she led the successful campaign to repeal the state’s sodomy ban in 1993. A year after winning that landmark legislative battle, Brown lost her bid for re-election because of a religion-related lie: Her opponent, Kathy Augustine, charged that Brown refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance that began each legislative day in the state Senate. Brown, in fact, left the chambers to avoid participating in the daily prayer, which she argued was sectarian because it included references to Jesus Christ. She sued Augustine and other lawmakers who joined her in the false charges, and two years later she obtained a settlement out of court in which Augustine admitted that her accusations were false.
Brown told the Forward that on arrival in Washington, she intends to seek alliances with Jewish groups, particularly in opposing government funding for religious institutions and in fighting for church-state separation.
“I’m sure there will be a lot of overlapping and a lot of cooperation” with Jewish activists, Brown said, adding that she hopes they will join her in opposing the widespread view that “only religious people can be moral and ethical.” Such arguments, she said, easily can lead to using sectarianism of the kind she had experienced when she was the only Jew in the Nevada Senate.
That experience did not change her worldview, she said, but it did push her to seek a stronger bond with Jewish institutions. “I joined Valley Outreach Synagogue, a Reconstructionist congregation, in 1995 after being attacked, in part for being a Jew, during my 1994 re-election campaign,” Brown said, adding that she also joined Women’s American ORT and Hadassah. “That attack made me a better Jew, an atheist humanistic one.”