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Godless Americans
March On Washington
Press Conference
Friday, November 1, 2020

Introductory Remarks by Ellen Johnson Chair, GAMOW Task Force

Good morning.

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 American Atheists.

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.


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