Atheist Activism in Alabama
By Larry Darby
Given at the 28th National Convention of American Atheists, Inc. Saturday,
30 March 2020
Larry Darby, Alabama State Director for American Atheists, was awarded
the coveted "Atheist of the Year Award" for 2001. An attorney and activist,
Mr. Darby has led the fight for state-church separation in Alabama, "the
state which time forgot." Among his activities has been a challenge to the
placement of an enormous, 5,280-lb. granite Ten Commandments monument
in the state's judicial building.
I'm proud to be an American Atheist! And I'm happy to be here today
to talk to you about my experiences as an activist Atheist in Alabama.
Alabama has long been a sanctuary for bible-based bigotry. Some
elements still want to secede from the union and, I suspect, leave the matter
of slavery up to individual states.
Baptists still preach subjugation of women, and many women defend
the bible. The Code of Alabama prohibits the sale of sex toys, but only if their
purpose is for stimulation of the sex organs.
I'm sure you all know of Chief Justice Roy Moor's placement of his
"holy rock" in the state Judicial Building last August. And I'm also sure you
all know of Moore's recent court opinion wherein he acknowledged the Judeo-Christian
principle that homosexuals are "inherently evil."
You may also know that Moore and other radical judges on the
Supreme Court changed the rules of the Alabama Judicial Inquiry
Commission, making it virtually impossible for any judge to be charged with
misconduct. Essentially, Moore has given judges the power to act with the
impunity of theocratic colonial governors. By so empowering the other judges,
Moore is essentially Alabama's Lord High Priest.
I bet you didn't know that Alabama's Constitution has a beautiful
section on religious freedom that should make the concept obvious to the
most simple-minded person. However, it appears no one within any branch of
government in Alabama has ever read the provisions making it clear that
even Atheists shall be free from religious coercion.
Some Alabama legislators have been falling all over themselves to
introduce Bills designed to force religion on Alabama's public school children.
I personally know of three House Bills and three Senate Bills that in some
fashion, if made into law, would further erode religious freedom. The most
ridiculous Bill makes it mandatory that the voluntary Pledge of Allegiance be
recited prior to the mandatory moment of silence each school day for public
So, do you have a picture of what is going on in Alabama? Similar
abuses of religious freedom are happening all over the United States.
Atheists in Alabama are fighting back, and I'm here today to tell you of
my experiences as an activist Atheist in Alabama. The voice of reason is
being heard all across the State of Alabama and we are advancing in a state
temporarily dominated by people who yearn to live under a Dark Age
theocracy. I hope the sharing of my experiences with you today will cause you
to go home with renewed determination to help bring about a New Age of
Enlightenment in the United States of America.
Within days of being appointed Alabama State Director for American
Atheists last May, the opportunity to stage a protest fell into my lap.
President Bush would be speaking in Birmingham.
Other organizations, the largest of which was the Sierra Club, were
planning protests against the Bush administration. I made contact with some
Birmingham organizers and managed to muster seven Atheists to carry signs
opposing Bush's faith-based initiatives last June. We received good TV,
radio, and print media coverage.
There were probably a dozen groups protesting Bush, but I was the
only protest leader singled out by the United States Secret Service for an
The most annoying aspect of that demonstration was when people
there would walk up to me and confide that they were Atheists, but refused
to protest with us. After this experience of getting my feet wet, I began
seeking out and rallying known Atheists in Alabama, primarily for the
purpose of writing letters to the editor.
Soon, another issue emerged.
The State of Alabama has the only anti-evolution textbook disclaimer
in the country. The state's Course of Study for Science was us for re-evaluation
last year, and the disclaimer became an issue. I urged people to
oppose the textbook disclaimer on First Amendment grounds because the
state was spending taxpayer money to promote notions about science that
were alternatives to evolution. That is to say, the disclaimer opens the door
for teachers to talk about intelligent design and creationism.
The religionists had many of their own letters printed in newspapers,
but letters supporting science dominated the opinion pages. In the end,
Alabama's science curriculum was improved, back to where it was prior to
1994, I think, when the Eagle Forum successfully lobbied to weaken science
education in Alabama. But the evolution disclaimer is still in science
Although we were partially successful in that science standards have
been improved, I received a lot of flack from some so-called freethinkers who
wanted to ally with Christians in the matter of the disclaimer! Their idea was
that pointing out the evolution disclaimer as contrary to the Constitution
would alienate Christians. I was told I should not get involved in activism
because I was an Atheist and would alienate Christians who otherwise would
support science in Alabama.
However, all the while I was improving friendships with Atheists
across Alabama. My friendship with Blair Scott, President of the Mobile Area
Freethought Association, really blossomed and that group became the first
Alabama group to apply for and be named an official affiliate of American
Atheists. Blair is a hard-working activist Atheist. His group maintains the
Freethinkers Letter Writing Cooperative. The letter-writing cooperative
tracks letters to editors in Alabama and makes sure that each and every
religionist letter gets a response.
Last year the letter writing cooperative was responsible for getting
literally hundreds of letters printed. At one point we monitored newspapers
in nine Southern states. But because of developing events in Alabama, i.e.
Roy Moore's shenanigans, we now focus mostly on Alabama newspapers. But
without the hard work of the letter-writing volunteers, Atheist activism
would be far short of what it is today.
Last summer, my two daughters and I attended Camp Quest. I want to
introduce to you Edwin and Helen Kagin, the directors of Camp Quest. The
Kagins have worked hard for several years to create a summertime camping
opportunity for children of Atheists. To give you an idea of how much fun it
is, Danielle, my oldest daughter and I looked into her taking a trip to
Australia this coming summer. Danielle's primary concern was whether the
trip to Australia would conflict with Camp Quest this coming summer. We
plan to attend Camp Quest again this year. Four members of the Camp
Quest Board of Directors are here today, the Kagins, Larry Jones and myself.
It was on the day my girls and I were packing to leave Camp Quest
and head back to Alabama that I heard the first account of Roy Moore's "holy
rock" being placed in the state Judicial Building. Another American Atheist,
Joe Fox of New Jersey, who is here today, was the person who told me.
Shortly thereafter I learned of some black legislators who wished to
place a monument depicting sayings of Martin Luther King in the state
Judicial Building and intended to do so, with or without Moore's permission.
On that designated day, six Atheists showed up. After the security guards
refused the legislators entrance into the rotunda of the state Judicial
Building, the legislators called for prayer and some kneeled.
The Atheists were separated, but among the crowd. I made the first
shout, "Impeach Moore!" while prayer was being spoken. Throughout the
prayer different Atheists shouted, "Impeach Moore!" One man in the
legislative delegation hollered angrily at me, "Shut up!"
There was a pause, but within a minute, Atheists were shouting again.
Needless to say, we made headlines. And this is a good place to point out that
every time the words "American Atheists" or "Madalyn Murray O'Hair" are in
the news, I receive new contacts from Atheists in Alabama. Atheists cannot
discount the value of publicity.
At some point during this time, my friend Bill Teague began working
on a three-dimensional replica of the American Atheists symbol. I engaged
the Chief Justice in letters requesting he allow our symbol be placed in the
state Judicial Building and, predictably, he refused.
Meanwhile, other lawyers became plaintiffs against Moore, with
attorneys from Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil
Liberties Union in conjunction with Americans United for Separation of
Church and State. As time went by it became evident that a lawsuit by an
Atheist plaintiff-intervenor would not be welcomed by the other plaintiffs'
I was annoyed at first because I wanted to be a plaintiff. But my
lawsuit would have, in part, simply mirrored the other two lawsuits on
Establishment Clause grounds. My suit would be different, however, because
with the American Atheists symbol, I can make a claim under the Equal
Access laws. This matter truly needs to be won on Establishment Clause
grounds and any intervention by me now, on grounds of equal access, would
If the two lawsuits versus Moore fail, however, I can still sue to place
the symbol in the state Judicial Building.
During the time I was writing letters to the Chief Justice, wouldn't you
know it? I was being lobbied by some so-called freethinkers to not get
involved. I was told it would be better to help the black legislators get the
words of Martin Luther King in the rotunda and that Atheists' involvement
would be counterproductive. I pressed forward, continuing to get press and
new Atheist contacts.
One of the legislators, Alvin Holmes, during all of this said, "I'm
against anything Atheists represent because I believe in God."
In Alabama, I have an on-going focus on seeking out new activists.
Remembering the spirit of protest in Birmingham from last June, I began
exploring the possibility of an Atheist group in Birmingham. Ken Cornelius
volunteered to be the coordinator of what is now known as The Birmingham
Atheists. At the first meeting twelve people showed up and later meetings
have had as many as 35 in attendance. The Birmingham Atheists are an
official affiliate of American Atheists and it is great that we have a voice in
Alabama's largest city. Several members of The Birmingham Atheists also
attend meetings of the Alabama Freethought Association, a chapter of
Freedom From Religion Foundation.
I encourage Atheists in Alabama to get involved with and get to know
other Atheists. I attend meetings of the Alabama Freethought Association
and I have gotten to know several members of that group who have
subsequently become strong Atheist activists. I have also cultivated my
contacts with the Atlanta Freethought Society and many great letters from
those members are regularly published in Alabama newspapers.
At this time, I would like to recognize Ried Crowe. Ried Crowe is just
one of many letter writers from outside Alabama who are helping introduce
the reading public in Alabama to the light of reason. Ried is here today. Ried
is a Volunteer in the Mobile Area Freethought Association's Freethinkers
Letter Writing Cooperative.
Also last Fall I began a dialog with Richard Rich, the leader of a
Skeptic group in Decatur, near the Tennessee border. Richard's group has
been in existence for several years and has functioned primarily as a
discussion group. I have seen evidence that Richard's group is becoming more
activist and will become a larger voice for reason in their region. A couple of
months ago, the Skeptics-Freethinkers of Northern Alabama group was
designated an official affiliate of American Atheists. There is an American
Atheist presence in Alabama from the Gulf Coast to the Tennessee border.
Some of you may know of my short stint as a candidate seeking the
Libertarian nomination for Attorney General of Alabama. I went sharply up
the learning curve relative to politics in a very brief period of time. I learned
a lot more this morning from Eddie Tabash's outstanding presentation.
Almost immediately after I announced I was seeking the nomination, an anti-Darby
faction within the Libertarian Party of Alabama was created.
Concurrent with that, I was told by some party officials to stay away from
issues of religious freedom because many Libertarians were big supporters of
Roy Moore. I was told to stay away from "sin issues" when I wanted to make
Alabama's stupid sex toy law an issue.
I received an e-mail from a man who asked whether I was aware that a
deal had been made between Libertarian party officials and the incumbent
Republican Attorney General. I was told that as payback for the Attorney
General's Opinion that gave the Libertarian Party of Alabama automatic
ballot access this election cycle, the Libertarian officials agreed to not support
I haven't made out a list of all the reasons I might have for dropping
out of the race, but for now it is sufficient to say I can better use my time and
energy by doing other things. I learned a helluva lot from the experience, and
very likely I will seek public office again in the future. I did manage to raise
about $1,700, which I put to good use. Some of you here did contribute to my
candidacy, and I sincerely appreciate that. But most of you did not.
No openly Atheist candidate will ever be elected to public office until
fellow Atheists are willing to provide money and hard work to his or her
campaign. I even received some discouraging words from some Atheists.
Rather than discourage someone trying to get a place at the table on your
behalf, I challenge each and every one of you to take a stab at running for
Even though my candidacy was brief, our movement received great
benefit. American Atheists was mentioned in Associated Press articles and
several regional newspapers. We received international press when my
candidacy was mentioned in USA Today. Just by having my name in the
public eye, as an openly Atheist candidate, I believe my candidacy helped
make non-Atheists aware that Atheists do exist in Alabama, and this
country, and that we are on the move and will eventually take our rightful
places as leaders within our state and federal governments. I concur with
Eddie Tabash's blueprint for getting Atheists elected to public office.
Well, not being content with a two-ton holy rock in the state Judicial
Building, our Chief Justice struck again with his bible-based judicial wisdom
and wrote a court opinion, citing his Bible, and discussed homosexuality with
terms such as "inherently evil." A new furor erupted in Alabama.
A purported champion for homosexuals, legislator Alvin Holmes, rose
up and got some press by admonishing the Chief Justice for singling out a
segment of the population as being "evil." I quickly sent out letters to editors
all over Alabama reminding readers that it was Holmes who, a few months
ago, blurted out that he was against anything Atheists represented because
he believed in God. That letter was published in Florence and Dothan.
Incidentally, the Dothan Eagle, for two years, refused to publish any letters
from Atheists. After sending that letter, I got a personal call from the editor
saying our letters would now be published. Dothan is in an ultra-conservative,
rural area of southeast Alabama known as the Wiregrass.
Alvin Holmes quickly faded as a champion for homosexuals, but a few
mild demonstrations were staged by homosexuals in Montgomery. Then last
week a new furor erupted over Moore's opinion.
Fred Phelps, Jr. and members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist
Church announced they were coming to Montgomery to show their support
for Chief Justice Moore! Fred Jr. intended to demonstrate first at the white
First Baptist Church because Judge Sharon Yates attends that church. By
the way, Montgomery has a black First Baptist Church, too. Judge Yates lost
to Moore in the last Supreme Court election and wrote the appellate court
opinion that the Supreme Court reversed, which gave rise to Moore's
inflammatory opinion about homosexuality.
From the First Baptist Church, Fred Jr. would go to Immanuel
Presbyterian Church because homosexuals were invited there to engage in
what was called a "Sing Out" instead of demonstrating against the Phelps
family. Fred, Jr., announced they would be at the two churches on Sunday
night, and then on Monday would demonstrate at the state Judicial Building
in support of the Chief Justice and then at the Southern Poverty Law Center,
which is providing the legal counsel for one of the plaintiffs against Roy
Moore concerning Moore's holy rock.
After Fred Junior's announcement, some of the Montgomery area
homosexual groups issued advisories telling people to not protest the Phelps
family because there was the potential of altercation or arrest. Fred, Jr., an
attorney, was portrayed as a real bad-ass, who would have counter-demonstrators
arrested for so much as speaking to him! Instead of protesting,
these groups asked that supporters give them money and attend the church
service scheduled at Immanuel Presbyterian church on Sunday.
I seized this opportunity to stage a counter demonstration. I sent out
word of a counter demonstration. And, guess what? I received an e-mail from
a freethinker asking me to consider that the gays were asking people to not
I answered that e-mail with a missive stating that Roy Moore is a
tyrant and anytime is a good time to protest tyranny.
Four Atheists met at my law office. That Sunday morning I had gone
to Kinko's and had appropriate signs made. We had the American Atheists
symbol mounted on a utility trailer and put signs on the trailer. We went to
the First Baptist Church.
There were lots of cops, media and a few church members outside the
main entrance to the church, but only six members of the Westboro Baptist
Church. One of my party drove his truck, pulling the trailer and the Atheists
symbol around and around the block of the First Baptist Church. The rest of
us held our signs and I was interviewed by reporters. We four Atheists were
the only counter-demonstrators.
When Phelps and company left First Baptist, one other Atheist and I
followed him, the police, and the media to Immanuel Presbyterian Church. At
Immanuel, we were the only two protesters, initially. After about ten
minutes a man walked up with a small sign he apparently had scrawled on
the spot. I soon discovered he was a Montgomery attorney and I was really
happy about that!
Five minutes later, three men and one woman walked up, each
carrying signs - very obviously terrified. Two Atheists had caused five other
people to join in the counter-demonstration against faith-based hatred. But,
When I introduced myself to the newcomers as the director for
American Atheists, the one woman grimaced, with a horrified expression,
looked at me, then looked at Phelps, and then walked closer to Phelps as if to
say the gay bashers were preferable to an Atheist to be near.
Just like a black legislator, Alvin Holmes, can't identify with Atheists
being a despised minority, neither can some gay rights supporters. But I was
The newspaper account the next morning reported that Phelps and
company packed their signs and left shortly after the American Atheists
arrived. Monday morning at the state Judicial Building and the Southern
Poverty Law Center, I was the lone Atheist counter-demonstrator, but I was
joined by about thirty new counter-demonstrators.
The moral of this story is that two days earlier, homosexuals were
being advised to stay home. But one day after four Atheists staged a
counter-demonstration against our common oppressor, homosexuals turned out in
If there is to ever be a New Age of Enlightenment in America, Atheists
will have to lead the way. If Atheists in Alabama can stand up to religious
bigotry, then you can do it wherever you live. If I can do it, so can you.
It hasn't always been easy, but I can say fan mail comes more
frequently than hate mail. One letter from a retired professor said, "Thank
you for your letter which appeared in the Birmingham Post Herald on Friday,
October 5, 2020." Another one, which I received last week said that a recent
letter of mine in the Birmingham News was "right on." We're growing in
A man in the Wiregrass contacted me recently asking for help in
starting an Atheist group there. This is in contrast to the group in
Birmingham, where I sought someone to start a group. This time someone
sought me to help him start a group.
Atheists in Alabama are on the move. If we can do it there, it can be
done in any other state. One person can make a difference in your state. If I
can do it, you can do it, too.
Now, my daughter Adrienne has her own presentation to make to you.
Last December her fifth-grade class was given a list of topics from
which to choose in order to make a 2-minute speech. Adrienne chose the topic
of "Prayer in schools." Adrienne received the only 100 in the class for her
speech. But, alas, her teacher subsequently telephoned me to invite Adrienne
and me to attend a special church service at her church - the First Baptist
I wish to also point out that her sister, Dani served as editor and made
some last-minute improvements to the speech. Ladies and Gentlemen,
Prayer in Schools
By Adrienne Darby
Edited by Dani Darby
I wish to talk to you about the issue of prayer in public schools. This
issue is usually mistakenly described as one where prayer is not allowed in
schools. The issue is really whether government school teachers and
principals can force public school children to engage in prayer. The fact is,
any student who wants to pray, may pray silently at anytime, without asking
anyone for permission.
I oppose school teachers and principals directing students in prayer. I
offer three reasons why prayer should not be forced on students.
First, the United States Constitution guarantees us freedom of
religion. This guarantee is found in the First Amendment. Freedom of
religion means freedom to practice any religion whatsoever or no religion at
all. In the 1962 case known as Engle versus Vitale, the United States
Supreme Court declared forced prayers in public schools to be
unconstitutional. Students come from all sorts of backgrounds, including
homes without religion. When a school principal makes students listen to a
prayer, we have lost freedom of religion.
Second, humans are known to have created or believed in over 2,500 gods.
Who is to determine to which god students pray? Even if you decide to pray to
the bible-god, there will still be disagreements. Jews, Christians, and
Muslims have been killing each other for hundreds of years because of
different views about religion. And even if you decide to pray a Christian
prayer, there will be disagreements between Baptists, Mormons, Catholics,
and so on. Students do not need these problems in schools.
Third, if you are a Christian, public prayers should not be forced on
students because your bible tells you so. Matthew 6:5-6 reads, "And when
thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray
standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may
be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou,
when thou prayest enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door,
pray to they Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret
shall reward thee openly."
In conclusion I offer to you the wisdom of a Wisconsin State Court
ruling which stated, "There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel,
fights, malignant opposition, persecution, war, and all evil in a state as
religion. Let it once enter into our civil affairs, our government would soon be
destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed."
© 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.