LGBT atheists focus on separation of church and state
by Megan Smith
America is the land of tolerance and religious freedom—as long as you believe in some kind of a god. Dare to deny the existence of a power higher than yourself, and you’ve got a major problem.
This is the attitude encountered by self-identified atheists all across the United States, and especially in Texas. Article I, Section IV of the Texas Constitution goes as far as banning atheists from holding public office, stating, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding public office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.” Similar wording is found in the state constitutions of Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
This wording is technically invalidated by the 1961 Supreme Court case Torcaso v. Watkins, in which the Court found it to be in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. However, Texas has yet to remove this language. “It costs a lot of money and a lot of time for the state of Texas to revise its constitution,” Jimmy McLaughlin, LGBT organizer for the Houston Atheists, says. “They have no plans to do so. Frankly, we don’t care because when that court case came up, it invalidated anybody who might challenge someone for being non-religious and seeking public office.”
Despite their apathetic attitudes toward this outdated language, McLaughlin emphasizes the continued minimal presence of atheists in public office. With no representation in the Senate and only one openly atheist member in Congress, atheists remain one of the most underrepresented and discriminated-against minorities in the country.
Many extreme right-wingers, such as David Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council, deem atheists morally questionable and are against removing the invalidated language from the Texas Constitution. “I really don’t think the people, at this point in time, are ready to revoke that provision, and say that those people that aggressively deny the existence of God are somehow then going to be trustworthy,” Welch said in a 2009 radio interview with KTRH.
McLaughlin, along with the other 1,700 Houston Atheists members, seeks to cast off the historical stigma surrounding atheists and educate others that today’s atheism doesn’t correspond with the previous 1930s image of negatively perceived and radical ideologies. “Over time, the attitudes will change,” McLaughlin says. “There was a day when people wouldn’t vote for somebody if they were Catholic or Jewish. We’re in the same boat as they were. The main thing is letting go of the idea of what an atheist is and coming to the realization that it’s simply a matter of separation of church and state, and that they’re not morally deficient. If anything, they respect the Founding Fathers’ work that they did on the First Amendment to separate those two.”
Although the battle of holding public office is pretty much over, atheists still face several struggles where the line between church and state is blurred—prayer before city councils, the public display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, and many more.
The Secular Coalition for America, a national lobby organization representing the interests of atheists, humanists, agnostics, freethinkers, and other nontheistic Americans, recently announced their plans to organize a Texas chapter to help legally fight these battles and increase advocacy efforts. “Over time, whether it is Texas, or the South, or the West, we all will eventually rise to the First Amendment,” McLaughlin says. “If it’s not happening soon enough, it’s the job of the Secular Coalition of America to speak up and bring it to the public’s attention. You don’t have the ability to say ‘my religion says that gay people can’t get married, so I’m going to create laws that stop them from getting married’ and you can’t say ‘I’m going to burn a witch at the stake’ like they did in Salem because they thought they had demons in them. There’s that line where the First Amendment guaranteed you couldn’t cross, and you just can’t cross it.”
McLaughlin stresses that the Houston Atheists’ purpose would never be to convert people to atheism, but rather is primarily a social group that provides a safe space for like-minded people to start conversations, air opinions, and build community. “It doesn’t matter what religious faction,” he says. “We step back and say ‘we don’t want to be part of the problem, but we’d like to be part of the solution.’ So, don’t let religion and government intertwine.”
Atheists call on government to end Boy Scout funding
The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has recently been under heavy fire after reaffirming their policy of excluding gays from the national organization. Even after more than 300,000 signatures were presented to the BSA national office by a den mother who was ousted for being openly lesbian, the organization stands by its ban as the absolute best policy for the Boy Scouts.
This ban includes atheists as well as the LGBT community. To be affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America, one is required to believe in God. Previous courts have ruled that this type of discrimination is permissible because the Boy Scouts of America is a private organization.
But a closer look at the organization’s funding reveals that it is not all that private. BSA holds a Congressional Charter and receives support and participation from a variety of government agencies:
• All branches of the military issue a promotion for Eagle Scouts. This constitutes discrimination in hiring by the military, as well as government approval of BSA discriminatory policies.
• Equal opportunity regulations in the military explicitly prohibit support of organizations that discriminate. Yet, there is a close collaboration between the military and the Scouts.
• The U.S. president traditionally serves as the honorary BSA president, a tradition that President Obama has continued.
• In early 2005, Congress passed a resolution expressing a “sense of the Congress” that the Department of Defense should support Boy Scout activities through the use of military personnel, federal land use, and other assistance for their massive jamborees. The 2005 jamboree cost taxpayers approximately $8 million.
• In 2008, Congress voted to pass the “Boy Scouts of America Centennial Commemorative Coin Act.” A potential $3.5 million in coin-sale surcharges goes to the Boy Scouts.
The Secular Coalition for America, a national lobbying organization representing atheists and other nontheistic Americans, is calling on the government to end all taxpayer support for the Boy Scouts. “It is unconscionable that an organization that discriminates against Americans based on religion and sexual orientation is permitted to do so with the support of taxpayer funding,” Lauren Anderson Youngblood, Secular Coalition for America communications manager, said. “If the Boy Scouts is determined to continue discriminating, it should be stripped of all public funding and support from public agencies.”
Although the Secular Coalition for America recognizes that courts have allowed private membership organizations such as the Boy Scouts to discriminate, the coalition emphasizes that the U.S. government should not be permitted to aid in such discriminatory behavior due to antidiscrimination laws and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. “When Congress gives money to the Boy Scouts, it is implicitly endorsing the religious discrimination practiced by the organization,” Youngblood said. “They are implying to young boys that only those who believe in God or have a particular sexual orientation can be good citizens. Not only is that immoral, but also unconstitutional.”