A national lobbying group for atheists, agnostics and other nontheistic people is expanding its fight for the separation of religion and government by organizing a state chapter in Maryland.
The Secular Coalition for America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit formed in 2002, is looking to organize chapters in all 50 states by the end of the year. An initial organizing call for Maryland was held Tuesday afternoon.
The organization targets what it sees as attempts to insert religion or religiously based discrimination into the law. And although it represents atheists, it’s open to anyone — even those who are religious — who supports a clear separation of religion and the law, said Lauren Anderson Youngblood, a coalition spokeswoman.
That sense of inclusion was seen as a good sign by Matthew Goldstein of Bowie, a prospective member who listened in on Tuesday’s conference call. “They are civil rights-oriented,” Goldstein said. “They want civic equality for people of faith and people of no faith.”
That fight is particularly important at the state level, Edwina Rogers, the coalition’s executive director, said in a statement.
“Some of the most egregious violations of church [and] state separation are being promoted and passed at the state level, and we absolutely must act to stop it,” Rogers said.
A recent example of state-level legislation was a Virginia law allowing private agencies to deny adoptions based on the religious beliefs or sexual orientation of the prospective parents, Youngblood said.
Another was a proposed amendment to a Michigan anti-bullying bill that would have created an exemption for moral or religious beliefs, a measure opponents said could protect bullies who targeted gay or Muslim students, she said.
At the federal level, the coalition previously has taken aim at exemptions that allow clergy members — even wealthy ones with multiple homes — to avoid paying income tax on their houses and regulations that allow religious organizations that receive federal funding to discriminate in hiring based on religion.
Unlike some organizations that advocate for atheists and the nonreligious, the coalition is focused exclusively on legislation.
“What we do is take people within a state and train them to lobby their lawmakers,” Youngblood said.
Ryan Jean of Laurel, another prospective member, said the group’s legislative focus was promising. Some atheist and humanist groups try to shape policy through legal means, such as lawsuits to remove religious symbols from public areas. “I see [the coalition] as trying to build bridges, where too often people build walls,” he said.
The prospective Maryland chapter doesn’t have a specific legislative agenda, but previous legislation that would fall under its purview includes a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman and a bill proclaiming March 1 to be St. David’s Day, according to the coalition.
Goldstein said initiatives such as the marriage amendment were “not being fair to those who don’t share the beliefs behind those laws.”
Since the coalition’s expansion effort began in June, initial calls have gone out to organize chapters in 27 states. Ultimately, the coalition hopes for one in each state, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
State chapters already established are in Arizona and Colorado, and the coalition expects to announce chapters in three new states shortly, Youngblood said.