Sunday, May 4, 2014

In the Bible Belt, Atheists Take on the National Day of Prayer

A crew of metro-Atlanta atheists traveled to a small suburban community to protest this year's National Day of Prayer. Demonstrators and locals alike share their thoughts on the annual event, addressing whether or not the observation discriminates against nonbelievers.

By: James Swift

Atlanta Free Thought Society President Rick Pace offers a simple explanation as to why his organization chose Acworth, Ga., as the site of their 2014 National Day of Prayer protest.

“Because they got the most Cobb County coverage last year,” he said. “That’s precisely why I picked Acworth.”

Pace is obviously upset by this year's festivities, however. While close to a hundred or so individuals attended the celebration -- staged outside Acworth City Hall -- Pace was expecting a much larger crowd. Even so, the number of attendees dwarves Pace and his fellow protesters, whose number, including himself, is just half a dozen.

The Atlanta Free Thought Society (AFS) demonstration is restricted to a small circle adjacent to the official City Hall event. A two lane road serves as a literal wedge between the two crowds; one may argue about the blurred boundaries of church and state, but today, there is most certainly a clear, physical separation between the "true believers" and the irreligious.

Rep. Ed Setzler, a Republican representing Georgia's 35th district, was one of several speakers and prayer leaders at the event. "Some of the terrible, terrible, terrible fights we've had as a nation amongst ourselves, some of the most bitter conflicts we've had," Rep. Setzler said, "I believe there's only one thing that's kept this nation in one piece: and that's like-mindedness in Christ."

He then speaks about the recent plights of Eastern and Central European nations, whom he says does not share the same "truth" that Americans share. He recounts his experiences as a U.S. Army Officer in Bosnia. "We drove by a building where one faction had loaded 1,500 men and boys in, and set the building on fire," he said, "because they don't share the same truth that we have."

The AFS demonstrators, obviously, beg to differ. Pace brings up how Christianity was a similar "truth" for the Ku Klux Klan and slaveholders. His sign reads "Hypocrites! Matthew 6:5-6."

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites," the New International Version interpretation of the passage reads, "for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others."

Several prayer sessions and musical performances follow. A dancer carrying a flag with the word "freedom" emblazoned upon it did a routine, which was followed up with a speech by Acworth Police Department Chaplain Lee Gambrell. On the heels of the nationally publicized FedEx warehouse mass shooting in neighboring Kennesaw, Gambrell asks attendees to pray for not only the families of the shooting victims, but for the family of the shooter himself.

As the National Day of Prayer events continue, the AFS demonstrators discuss a litany of subjects, from Brunei's recent decision to implement Sharia law to the still lingering aftereffects of Ronald Reagan's presidency and the Moral Majority. They discuss the provisions laid out in Leviticus while munching on cookies given to them by locals -- with the exception of AFS member Laura Ross, who abstains from the foodstuffs due to her vegan diet. After a musical interlude, Pace jokingly requests"Judith" by the heavy metal band A Perfect Circle be played.

Towards the end of the hour-long event, Acworth Mayor Tommy Allgood takes the podium. He gives a brief history of the National Day of Prayer, from Harry Truman signing a bill establishing an unfixed annual date for the event in 1952 up to a 1988 amendment that solidified the first Thursday in May as the official observation date each year.

"God has blessed this community in a special way," Allgood said. "We are the most loving, the most giving community in America, right here in Acworth, Ga."

"Now, how do you think that happens?" he continued. "Well, I think God has brought brought those people to our city."

He said that he thinks its "pretty neat" to be able to stand outside City Hall "and celebrate God and thank Jesus for all the blessings that we have."

Across the road, the protesters silently look on. From several feet away, the look of dismay on their faces is unmistakable.

Crusaders of An Entirely Different Sort

On their official website, the Atlanta Freethought Society (AFS) states that it wishes to “enrich and empower our membership through education and activism” as well as “educate the public on the benefits and realities of living life without religion.”

“Last year we did four volunteer activities for charity, we did two outdoor festivals and we did two protests,“ Pace told Uncommon Journalism. “And then we have our monthly meetings….they’re open to the public, but they‘re at our facility.” Ironically enough, that facility -- “The Atlanta Freethought Hall,” located in Smyrna, Ga. -- is housed in a renovated building that, years earlier, was once a Baptist church.

Founded in 1985, the AFS is currently home to around 100 members. According to Pace, who has been president of the 501(c)3 organization since 2012, many more people participate in AFS events and make donations, yet are hesitant to become official members.

“Several people are afraid to be known members because they fear job security and some of them fear their families disowning them,” he said. “They might donate their time or something like that at an event, or give some money to us, and that’s fine, but they still choose to not be a member because of the possible ramifications.”

Dr. Ed Buckner, AFS Activism Task Force Chair, said the organization isn’t exclusively populated by atheists -- indeed, he said that there are quite a few members that self-identify as naturalists, or even theists themselves.

“We base our conclusions not on authority, but on thinking freely and considering evidence,” he described the AFS mantra. “We have protested National Day of Prayer events for quite a few years in a row…if we had enough manpower, we’d protest all of them.”

The Age-Old Debate on Separation of Church and State

“Prayer doesn’t offend us, or me, per se, it’s the guise of the way they’re doing it,” Pace said. “It’s not everyone, but local affiliations like this -- they’re having it at Acworth City Hall or Roswell City Hall -- they’re perpetuating it as if it’s a state-funded prayer service.”

Events of the like, Pace said, are not only violations of the United States Constitution, but violations of the Georgia State Constitution, which explicitly prohibits the direct or indirect use of public funds to “aid of any church, sect, cult or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution.”

However, City Manager Brian Bulthuis told Uncommon Journalism the Acworth event wasn’t funded by city resources. “It is sponsored by some of the local churches and citizens," he stated in an e-mail. "There is no budget for this event or expenses the city has other than staff time and those employees are already scheduled to work.”

In the past, Pace said the National Day of Prayer events his organization has protested have largely skewed towards Protestant crowds, with hardly any presence from non-Christian attendees. Pace said his organization once called the planners of a similar event, asking if Muslim or Jewish participants could be included. “We were told flat out,” he said, “‘no this is for Protestant Christians, you can go find your own thing.”

Approximately 100 individuals attended this year's National Day of Prayer festivities in Acworth, Ga. Events of the like have taken place in the city for the last 15 years. 

“The problem with that is not necessarily that people are praying,” Buckner said. “The ones that get to us the worst, that we think deserve to be given attention the most, either are or appear to be completely entangled in government.”

While Buckner said he and most AFS members believe in religious liberty, the Acworth festivities obfuscate the separation of church and state, toeing a dangerous line between constitutionality and unconstitutional religious endorsement.

“We believe people have a right to pray, if they want to,” he said. “What they don’t have a right to do is do it on public property, and give the appearance of speaking on behalf of everyone who is not a Protestant Christian.”

Are Nonbelievers Being Discriminated Against?

In the South, Buckner said that both atheism and acceptance of atheism has grown over the last few years. However, he still believes “irrational prejudices” exist, and that irreligious Southerners are often saddled with social stigmas.

“The biggest part of that stigma is probably connected to the notion that religiosity and morality are somehow causally related,“ he said. Yet having associated with atheists and theists, of all faiths and denominations, Buckner believes morality and religious belief are hardly inseparable notions. “The incidence of moral behavior, how you look at your fellow human beings,” he said, “is pretty much the same within all of these groups.”

Born to an Episcopalian clergyman in Fitzgerald, Ga., Buckner served as the president of American Atheists, the nonprofit founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, from 2008 until 2010.

“My guess, and this is just an impression, in the metro-Atlanta area, the incidents of discrimination against atheists and non-believers has eased off, maybe eased off considerably,” Buckner said. “If you get outside the metro area, even just to the town of Acworth for instance…you could face some very serious discrimination, even what may reasonably be called ‘persecution.’”

He recalled how locals reacted when, in 1984, Kenneth Saladin took the city of Milledgeville to court over its official seal, which included the word “Christianity.” A few years later, he said a Douglas County student “caught hell” for filing a suit which ultimately lead to the barring of organized prayer before high school football games. While such fiery reactions may have since simmered down, Buckner said Bible Belt atheists remain frequent targets of social discrimination today.

He said he’s known individuals who have been threatened for their stances on the separation of church and state, and some who have lost their jobs for being “outed” as nonbelievers. The stigma of atheism in the region is so severe, he added, that he suspects many elected officials in the Bible Belt are likely feigning religiosity to avoid a public backlash.

“Less than half the people in Cobb County are members of any church, mosque or temple,” he said. “I am convinced there are people in any church service, on any given Sunday morning, that there is significant percentage of people there who -- for social respectability or to sell life insurance or whatever -- don’t actually believe in that stuff.”

Pace said the predicaments of Southern Atheists parallels the predicaments of the gay community, with some irreligious individuals in the region fearing a loss of friends and extreme ostracism. “You look at ridiculous questions like, ‘do you people worship Satan’ or something like that, and they have no idea what it means to be an atheist,” he said.

He notes how, to this day, the South Carolina State Constitution includes a provision barring anyone “who denies the existence of a Supreme Being” from holding public office. Although overturned, the wording, which remains embedded on the state's books, is indicative of anti-atheist sentiments in the region, he believes.

“That’s point blank persecution right there,” Pace said.

If atheists and agnostics publicized their irreligiousness, however, Buckner believes much of the social stigma they face would fade away. Furthermore, by remaining silent on separation of church and state issues, he said irreligious Americans may be enabling and emboldening those in power who may use religion for political leverage.

“If you’re a politician and you end every speech with ‘God Bless America,’ and the only people that comment on it are the people that are glad you do it,” Buckner concluded, “you keep doing it.”

Event coordinator Beth Watson speaking at the 2014 National Day of Prayer event held outside Acworth City Hall.

Come Ye Men (and Women) of Faith

Since 2000, Beth Watson has coordinated National Day of Prayer ceremonies in Acworth. The idea struck her while she was driving to neighboring Cartersville, Ga. for an event nearly a decade and a half ago. 

“Why can’t we have it right here in Acworth?” she recalled the moment. “It was like the Lord spoke to my heart, and he said ‘yes, that’s what I want you to do.'” 

The festivities, Watson said, pay homage to “biblical principles the country was established on.”

“It’s important we come together, as a community,” she told Uncommon Journalism, “and just calling out to God for his hand on America.”

Watson said the National Day of Prayer does not violate church and state separation statutes. Furthermore, she said critics of the event are “misinterpreting” the United States Constitution. “When you came from England, if you weren’t a Catholic, it was off with your head,” she said. “So when this country was established, and became ‘nobody is going to force you to be a Catholic, and take your head off’…I just think it’s gotten all misrepresented through all the years.” 

Nor does she think the celebration discriminates against atheists. “I just see our exercising our right as Americans, and they have a right, as Americans, the atheists, to do what they’re doing,” she said. “We have a right, and they have a right, because this is America. That’s what’s so good about it.”

As for the AFS demonstrators, Watson said she’s praying for their conversions. 

“I pray for them, and I know that God is real because he lives in my heart,” she said. “And I would love it if they would allow Him to come to their heart, and to worship the one and true god.” 

Mayor Allgood told Uncommon Journalism the event was an opportunity for community members to thank God for their good fortunes. 

“Fifteen years ago, as a community, we wanted to make sure that we were being faithful,” he said. “It’s probably more just faithfulness of making sure we give God credit for all of our blessings.”

The separation of church and state, Allgood said, was a matter of “philosophical differences.” 

“In the formation of our country, I think the desire was that we would not have a government that dictates what kind of religion we had to follow,” he said. “Certainly, to have the opportunity to be able to worship, for everybody to worship…giving everybody the right to celebrate and worship the way they want to worship is really important.”

Acworth does hold non-Christian religious events, Allgood said. Each December, he said his community holds a Chanukah event alongside Christmas-themed activities. “We light the menorah downtown,” he said. “The Jewish folks come, and we have a big deal.”

Allgood said he was glad that AFS protestors “attended” the event. “We want to make sure we include everybody,” he said. “They were here, and they were certainly respectful…we hope they’ll join us again.”

To those who believe the National Day of Prayer is discriminatory against atheists and non-Christians, Allgood offered a succinct response. “Well,” he said, “that’s too bad if people think that.”

The Last Woman Standing

By one o’clock, a majority of the National Day of Prayer attendees -- mostly, a scattering of elder men and women, with a sizable minority of young children and bused-in teenagers -- had dispersed from Acworth City Hall. What had been an hour ago the scene of a miniature revival -- complete with choirs and red, white and blue balloons -- had returned to its quaint, almost static routine.

While her fellow protesters seemed to drift off as soon as the event concluded, Laura Ross, an AFS member since 2008, remained on the backstreets of “Lake City.”

“I knew there weren’t going to be a whole lot of people here,” she reflected on the demonstration. “So I knew we needed as many warm bodies as possible."

In the background, political hopefuls dash in for last minute photo ops. Earlier in the day, Ross carried several poster boards; “don’t pray with our tax dollars,” one of her signs read.

“I don’t have any problems with them doing it,” she said, the sound of a large truck's rumbling engine almost drowning out her voice. “I just have problems with the fact that they’re giving it the appearance that the city is sponsoring this.” The mayor’s participation, in particular, bothered her a great deal.

Alas, as a private event, she didn’t necessarily consider the event “discriminatory.” She thinks Acworth is a beautiful city, and considers its inhabitants to be nice people. The scent of seafood -- fittingly enough, off-limits to Ross herself -- begins to waft overhead.

“I’m sure that we would be welcome to come here,” she said, “but they sure would work on us.”

However, if Ross could’ve taken to the podium today, what would she have said to the National Day of Prayer attendees?

“I would just explain that I thought they were violating church and state by meeting here in the City Hall,” she said. “That’s real bothersome. I don’t think they should be using public property for this, because its not…”

She searches for an answer for a few seconds, as a strong gust of wind picks up.

"...American," she concludes with a soft chuckle.

Uncommon Journalism, 2014.

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