In order to combat what it views as the encroachment of religion on public life, a national organization called the Secular Coalition for America is planning on opening a state chapter in Ohio.
The local chapter would lobby the state legislature to keep church and the state separate, according to Secular Coalition for America spokeswoman Lauren Anderson.
“We think there’s a wrong belief of freedom of religion out there — religious freedom is your right to your own belief, as long as those beliefs don’t infringe on the beliefs of others or break the law of our secular government,” Anderson says.
“Our Constitution expressly prevents the co-mingling of religion and government. You often hear the argument this is a Christian nation — no it’s not. The Constitution was set up to make this a secular nation. The Constitution gets its power from nowhere else except ‘we the people.’ ”
The Coalition represents America’s nontheistic community — atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers.
Anderson says the coalition would fight bills like a recent Ohio House of Representatives bill that would allow public school children to receive class credit for religious courses taken off campus.
The group also opposes school vouchers: “According to our info, more than 75 percent of these vouchers go to religious schools,” she says. “Both (the religious course bill and school vouchers) are permitting public funding of religion, which is unconstitutional.”
Chris Long, president of the Ohio Christian Alliance, is a bit skeptical.
“It’s ambiguous as to what their mission is,” Long says. “There is no current law to contradict what they’re saying. Nobody is trying to establish any kind of religious legislation.”
Long said his group — which has lobbied in the past for bills requiring the teaching of America’s founding documents, banning human cloning in Ohio and ending the Ohio estate tax — is trying to protect religious expression and promote good public policy.
Long is a bit dubious of the Secular Coalition’s opposition to school vouchers.
He says people support vouchers and that they’re part of a school choice option.
The Secular Coalition and its soon-to-be-opened Ohio chapter isn’t the only group that has fought laws viewed as attempting to insert religion into public life.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s Ohio chapter has lobbied against legislation that would cause an intersection between faith and public life.
ACLU Ohio also opposes the bill to allow public school children to get credit for religious courses, says policy director Mike Brickner. The group also opposed a recent law that allows plaques with Ohio’s state motto — “With God, all things are possible” — to be donated to and placed in public schools.
Brickner says the ACLU does a lot of lobbying at the local level, too. The group opposes the Springboro school board’s push to incorporate creationism into the curriculum.
The Secular Coalition for America plans to host a conference call at 2 p.m. July 19 to start the process of organizing the Ohio chapter. Anderson says people who are interested but aren’t able to make the conference call can email or visit the group’s website at www.secular.org.
The national group would help the local chapter learn to lobby and provide it with a website, business cards and lobbying material, but other than that it will be left to its own devices, Anderson says.
The Ohio chapter is coming in the third wave of local chapters that should see one in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico by the end of 2012.
So far the national organization has opened up local chapters in Arizona and Alabama and made organizational calls to start chapters in 17 other states, Anderson says.
Sérah Blain, executive director of the Secular Coalition for Arizona, says her state’s chapter has been fairly successful since it was inaugurated two year ago.
“We’ve done a great job, I think, of building relationships in the state legislature,” she said. “We’ve had success in having some legislation altered and some bills killed.”
Among the bills the group altered was one that formed the Arizona State Guard and required members to swear an oath to God. Blain said the Secular Coalition for Arizona was able to have that amended to include an option to affirm the oath rather than swear to God.
Another bill, one of the controversial “personhood” bills cropping up in many states, would define a fetus as a human being and require a woman seeking abortion be informed that she is terminating “the life of a whole, separate, unique human being.” The Arizona coalition claims that the bill represents a bias against abortion based on religious assumptions about human development. That bill was ultimately killed in committee.
Anderson, of the national group, says the Secular Coalition and its state chapters don’t take a position on abortion in general.
“When it is expressly religious, we do take a stand,” Anderson says. “We have taken a stand on personhood amendments because it is trying to insert a religious definition into law.”
A group in Ohio recently tried to have voters decide whether to amend the state’s constitution to state that life begins at fertilization, which would be a de-facto ban on abortion. The group failed to gather enough signatures to make it onto the 2012 ballot.
Overall, the Secular Coalition’s goal is not to just influence state laws, but to educate people on the nontheistic community as well, Anderson says.
“A lot of people don’t think they’ve met an atheist, but in reality they likely have an atheist family member or coworker who hasn’t told them,” she says. “People will realize they’re just like us, but just don’t believe in God.”