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Taking a Bit of Pious Pleasure in Pledge of Allegiance Ruling

Atheism: Wisconsin group works to make voice of the 'unbeliever' heard in public forum.

June 30, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MADISON, Wis. — The very name provokes: the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

If that's not in-your-face enough, try its publications, perhaps the Atheist Cookbook with recipes like "Chicken Salad With No Religious Nuts," or the CD "Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist," featuring gospel tunes with Bible-mocking lyrics. Or how about the bumper sticker proclaiming: "Nothing Fails Like Prayer."

If it sounds outrageous, that is precisely the point. The three atheists who run the 5,000-member Freedom From Religion Foundation here are determined to make the "unbeliever" voice heard loud and clear in public discourse. They want to elbow a place for themselves in a society that seems ever more determined to push them out.

This may be their big moment.

Since a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared the Pledge of Allegiance's "under God" phrase unconstitutional last week, the three phone lines in the group's Freethinker Hall have been humming.

The trio has received the predictable hateful calls. But calls of support also have poured in from atheists delighted to see their perspective reflected in the court's ruling. About 14% of Americans classify themselves as nonbelievers--up from 8% a decade ago--and foundation staffers sense the community is raring for more court challenges.

"It's been fun," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of the group's monthly newspaper, Freethought Today.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation was not behind the Pledge of Allegiance lawsuit. But its attorney did advise the plaintiff. And the nonprofit organization has for 24 years been filing similar suits--fighting to pull Ten Commandments plaques from public property, to revoke Good Friday as an official holiday, to remove "In God we trust" from the nation's currency.

On a budget of $430,000 a year, most of it from donations, the foundation strives to protect atheists' rights to attend public school or to play in public parks without confronting references to a god they do not believe exists.

Many of their most ambitious lawsuits are tossed out. But the foundation's staff regards failures as victories if they drum up publicity, if they get people thinking about prying church from state.

And the foundation does prevail in some major cases. This year the group won a federal court decision declaring that government could not fund social service agencies that indoctrinate their clients in religious faith. And in Tennessee, a federal judge banned the Bible class that had been taught weekly in three public elementary schools for 51 years.

The foundation staff sees the pledge case as the most exciting triumph of all, because it sparked such ferocious outrage.

Anne Gaylor, the 75-year-old founder of the group, said she was "nauseated" by the sight of so many U.S. senators reciting allegiance to the flag on the Capitol steps. Her daughter, Annie Laurie, called the display "the ultimate political pandering."

Yet the Gaylors are confident the Senate's piety will backfire.

Supporters of "under God" in the pledge often insist it's not a religious reference, just an acknowledgment that the nation is united. "But when you see senators out there saying we need God to defend us, we need God on our side, that underscores the fact that this is a religious issue. They're making our case for us," said Dan Barker, the foundation's communications director.

Annie Laurie Gaylor says she hopes reaction to the ruling will expose "the mini-McCarthy era we have going now," in which invocations of God are held up as a test of patriotism. "The secular force in this nation hasn't really been mobilized yet, and I see a great deal of potential."

That worries some conservative critics, who say the foundation is distorting the Constitution.

"The 1st Amendment is intended to guarantee freedom of religion, not freedom from religion," said Ken Connor of the Family Research Council, an advocacy group. "You are not required to believe in God. But we're also not required to let the most hypersensitive among us set a lowest common denominator for public life."

Others, while skeptical of the foundation's aim, laud it for giving voice to a sizable--but often silent--minority. "Do I think God should be eradicated from society? No," said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal group. "But they raise legitimate issues."

To be sure, it's not the only group raising such issues. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a far more influential nonprofit with 60,000 members, including religious leaders of several faiths. The American Civil Liberties Union also presses the cause.

Founded in 1978, the foundation distinguishes itself by its emphasis on improving public tolerance for atheists. Thanks in part to the Gaylors' reflective tone, "the stereotype of a grouchy, extremely aggressive atheist has faded away," said Robert Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Atheists say such image-polishing continues to be an important mission, now more than ever.

Since Sept. 11, "we have been inundated with the idea that religiosity equals patriotism," said Elizabeth Blackwell, 82, a foundation supporter from La Canada Flintridge. "If I stood on my lawn and shouted, 'I am an atheist! I am an atheist!' sooner or later, someone would throw a rock at me."

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