March On Washington
Friday, November 1, 2020
Introductory Remarks by Ellen Johnson
Chair, GAMOW Task Force
I want to thank everyone for being here today.
My name is Ellen Johnson, and I am the President of American Atheists
and Chairwoman of the Godless
Americans March on Washington Task Force.
It is an honor to be standing here today with representatives of some
of the nation’s leading “Godless Americans” groups. Among us we represent
thousands of citizens throughout the country who describe themselves as
Atheists, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists, Rationalists or with a similar
name. We are part of a thriving and growing segment of our society which
according to the American Religion Identification Survey, is best described
as people who have “no religion.”
The ARIS study of 2001 estimates that over 14% of the American population
falls into this category; that’s some 30 million people. It is a figure
larger than all individual Protestant denominations, it is greater than
the number of Mormons and Jews and Muslims taken as individual groups or
even combined. And that figure of 14.3% is up from a 1990 measurement of 8%.
In the introduction to the ARIS report, researchers noted that “The present
survey has detected a wide and possibly growing swath of secularism among
Americans. The magnitude and role of this large secular segment of the
American population is frequently ignored by scholars and politicians alike...”
Tomorrow for the first time, an ad hoc coalition of “godless” organizations
will March down the Mall to a rally on the west side of our nation’s capitol.
We are calling this “The Godless Americans March On Washington.” I’m proud
to be standing next to some of the representatives of the groups which will
be joining us in tomorrow’s protest and celebration. It is a protest against
the current cultural and political climate in the United States, where
increasingly government promotes, funds and defends religion at the expense
of our First Amendment rights. It is also a celebration of our growing sense
of unity and empowerment.
I am joined here today by
Katherine Bourdenay representing the Council For Secular Humanism.
Eddie Tabash an attorney from Southern California who will be speaking
tomorrow about the need to elect Atheists and other godless Americans
to public office. Bobbie Kirkhart, President of the Atheist Alliance
International. Christopher Arntzen from the Gay and Lesbian Atheists and
Humanists and Ron Barrier who is the National Communications Director fo
We represent a diverse community. We use different labels in describing
ourselves and we are far from a monolithic movement.
But we do share common interests and agreement on key issues. The political
state of the nation -- the rush to use government money to fund faith-based
social outreaches; the use by politicians of religion as a litmus test for
wholesomeness, patriotism and courting voters; the bigotry displayed against
those of us who profess no religion in wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks --
these issues, and more, demand of us that we come together in common purpose.
We have concerns and demands.
* We want “equal rights” including fair treatment and protection from
religious harassment in the workplace; when seeking public office and the
right to serve on juries and give testimony; and in having our voices heard
and respectfully considered in the halls of Congress, our state legislatures
and other government offices.
* We call for an end to harassment and other violations of our rights in the
public schools. Too often we hear in the media exaggerated and unsubstantiated
claims that, somehow, religious speech is being throttled. The problem which
is often ignored, though, involves “prayer bullying” and other forms of coercive
religious proselytizing -- sometimes by students, sometimes by teachers and
administrators. Our public schools must not be allowed to become churches and
recruiting grounds for religious groups. They are and must remain centers for
secular and enlightened education.
* We also call for an immediate end to the use of government money to aid
religious groups, whether it is under the guise of operating faith-based social
programs, or repairing dilapidated houses of worship, tax dollars for vouchers for
religious schools or some other ruse.
One of the founding principles of the American Revolution was the disestablishment
of churches. This ended decades of public subsidies for religious organizations.
We have never fully realized the complete disestablishment of organized religion in
America and thanks to President Bush, Sen. Joseph Lieberman and other politicians,
we are moving toward greater public funding of religion. We think that it is wrong
to tax tens of millions of Americans who profess no religion in order to subsidize
religious proselytizing and rituals.
It’s impossible to give government money to religious groups and ask them to “promise”
not to proselytize. It can’t be done. Just try to enforce rules demanding fiscal
accountability and monitoring where religious groups are concerned. When you do
they protest that we are violating their First Amendment rights.
* We also are taking a stand against government aid to religion in the form of vouchers
and other financial assistance to religion-based schools. The voucher issue isn’t
about the benefits of competition, it is about the destruction of the “secular” public
school system. Since religious parents aren’t taking enough children into the
churches for indoctrination, the churches must get to them where they are, which
is in the schools and it needs the help of the government to do that. Neither is
this issue about school “choice” because it is the private schools that have the
choice. They can reject any student, while thepublic schools must take all students.
Vouchers are very bad for America but very good for religion.
* The Godless Americans March on Washington is also about protesting discrimination
against Atheists, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and other persons of “no religion”
in the public and private spheres. To have the full protection of our civil rights in
America we need to be included in the protected categories in the Federal Civil Rights
Act. There is no category now for non-religious persons. If you are an Atheist and
want to file a claim that your civil rights have been violated you have to claim that
it was your religious rights that have been violated and that is wrong.
Godless Americans should be able to run for public office, or serving on a jury.
Currently, the states of Arkansas and Pennsylvania prohibit godless Americans from
holding public office Any legal obstacles to these sorts of activities must be
demolished -- not the wall of separation between church and state.
We are also critical of the policy of the Boy Scouts of America to exclude
Atheists and gays. Everyone knows that they exclude gays but we are here to remind
you that they also exclude Atheists. They used to exclude Jews and blacks.
Restricting membership in an organization to something that is relevant to the
mission of that organization is justifiable, but there is no logic to excluding
Atheists or gays, except the illogic of bigotry.
We are protesting discrimination against nonbelieves by organizations that enjoy
a special relationship with government, such as the Boy Scouts of America. The
Scouts have already been criticized for barring gays from membership. They also
use a religious litmus test, though, by insisting that recruits swear an oath to
a deity -- something which millions of Americans will not do. Governments at the
federal, state or local level should not be giving aid and assistance to any
organizations that discriminates.
Discrimination on the basis of religion is wrong, even for “private” groups.
* Another purpose of the Godless Americans March on Washington is to raise our
visibility as a community; and the need for this become especially obvious in the
wake of the September 11, 2020 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC.
We admit that there are tens of millions of religious Americans. We do not
question the right of these citizens to pray as they see fit in the privacy of
their homes, churches, or other houses of worship. It is not the business of
government, however, to tell Americans that they must or should pray, when and
how they should pray, and to organize those prayer services. Our government should
never recognize it’s citizens by their religion.
Politicians exploited the tragic events of September 11 in an effort to mobilize
the country to prayer, and cite religious belief as a kind of magical shield against
terrorism. They conveniently avoided the fact that it was religious fanaticism
and intolerance that was the ideological underpinning of the September 11 attacks
in the first place! President Bush, in his litany of virtues describing American
civilization, seemed loath to mention the fact that one of the key principles
which distinguishes the United States from many authoritarian and despotic regimes
is that we are explicitly committed to the separation of church and state!
Perhaps this is because Mr. Bush and his administration are working feverishly to
demolish that “wall of separation” referred to by Thomas Jefferson.
All of us up here at the podium today were outraged and saddened by the events of
September 11. We were also disheartened -- and outraged -- at the aftermath, where
our political leaders shamelessly tried to exploit the tragedy as a rallying point
for some kind of religious revival. Prayer did not and will not stop Al Qaeda.
This is not a “war” between Jesus and Mohammed. And trying to become more like
the terrorists by using the power of government to saturate our society with
religious rituals and superstitions does not solve our problems.
All kinds of legislation has been introduced since then to promote the
Christian religion specifically, like the legislation to make “God Bless America”
our national hymn.
When organized religious groups want something -- like keeping the clergy housing
tax perk, or passing “special rights” legislation like the Religious Land Use and
Institutionalized Persons Act,” or some other entitlement perk from Washington or
the nearest state capitol -- politicians seem to trip over themselves in the rush
to comply. When “religion friendly” legislation is up for consideration, it seems
that the only people invited to give comment are from the religious community.
And that has to end.
There are 30 million “godless Americans” of one kind or another in this country.
We are a potential voting block more numerous than most denomination. While we do
not always agree on all of the issues, or describe ourselves with the same words,
I think there is an emergent consensus that we -- like the gays, the blacks, women’s
rights advocates and every other interest group in American society -- deserve to be
heard. We want what Ralph Reed, the former director of the Christian Coalition,
said that he wanted for the religious right; a “place at the table in the great
discussion we call Democracy.” We intend to get our act together and obtain a place
at that table.”
The Godless Americans March on Washington is a step in that direction. It’s a big
step in an even bigger journey.
I also want to add that this isn’t just about the problems that we face.
Another reason why we organized this March on Washington is because most godless
Americans have been working their tails off for years to help with our cause in many
different ways. All across the country Atheists and other nonbelievers struggle
with discrimination in our schools and workplaces. They fight to stop special rights
legislation for religious entities. And they speak out tirelessly for the rights of
nonbelievers. They are often isolated and far from any kind of support network, but
they persevere. They stick your necks out over and over again, oftentimes alone, to
be on the side of reason, progressive thinking and the defense of the United States
Constitution. Sometimes they win, oftentimes they lose, and I know all about their
struggles. So for all that they do and for all that they are, I think that they
deserve a day of great pride and recognition. It’s their day to shine tomorrow.
Thank-you. We welcome your questions.
© 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.