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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 school children.

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 interrogation.

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 textbooks.

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' attorneys.

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 be counterproductive.

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 my candidacy.

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 public office.

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 demonstrate.

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, get this.

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 not discouraged.

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 mass.

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 Alabama.

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 Church.

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, Adrienne Darby...

Prayer in Schools

By Adrienne Darby
Edited by Dani Darby

Hello!

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."

Thank you.




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